The Dead (1987)

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 29, 2014

This time I experience John Huston’s final film as a very careful, very respectful adaptation of an undeniably monumental work. So monumental, in fact, that it might be more unfilmable than Ulysses. The latter presents what appear to be insurmountable linguistic and adaptational challenges. (Just ask Joseph Strick, after congratulating him for having the nerve to even try!) This depends on a near incalculable accumulation of tiny, subtle, true things. Which do you choose? How do you communicate that portentous infinitesimalness? Conversely, how do you avoid being overemphatic? Heroic, tectonic modernism is one thing. In addition to its formal innovations James Joyce’s earlier novella is just impossibly true and perceptive, just impossibly good. That becomes its own special kind of impossibility.

So, good for Huston, who after all never flinched before a literary property, for taking this on. Given the source, the sincerity, and all sorts of skillful affection, there is a great deal to admire here. There are considerable felicities of language, design and performance. There’s an affecting combination of tender comedy and real reverence for these obscure Irish personages, whether they’re ridiculous or quietly heroic. Or both at the same time. I’m also struck by the quiet substance of a time/place that makes its own entertainment, though entertainment is too frivolous a word for what these characters are sharing. They’re on the brink of dire modernity, of irreversible change. But that’s not where the power of Joyce’s gathering lies. Is it an infusion of Yeats? These characters may be in an Edwardian setting, but antiquity and myth are at the doors.

A pity, then, that Huston and his collaborators don’t quite or even get, don’t quite or even get to Joyce’s central conflict, his central sorrow. As Gretta Conroy Ms. Anjelica Huston, the director’s own daughter, presents a very striking prospect. Further, her consort Gabriel, as played by Donal McCann, is sufficiently vain and oblivious. But though Joyce’s last imperishable lines are written and delivered, the scene quite capably designed and blocked, our hearts, my heart at least, remains unbroken. The last shots are superb, and were there ever such words? Let’s honour them:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Stupendous! But just before this unutterable conclusion Gabriel Conroy considers how much feeling there is in the world, how much joy and passion and sorrow, and how he has somehow missed it all. Beyond a musical performance or two, beyond the fact that the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered, Huston’s honourable film is finally as distant, mis-oriented and unconnected as its nominal protagonist.