Magazine article The Spectator

Nothing Doing

Magazine article The Spectator

Nothing Doing

Article excerpt

Dancing at Lughnasa (PG, selected cinemas)

Twilight (15, selected cinemas)

They won't dance, don't ask them. Or so, on behalf of her four dowdy younger sisters, older dowdier Kate Mundy has ruled. If you saw Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa on stage in the West End, you'll quickly gather that Pat O'Connor's film version is scrupulously faithful. On the other hand, you'll also wonder where the play went - all its life seems to have bled away, leaving an enervated drone. The usual problem, when a small English or Irish film feels the need to snag a Hollywood bigshot, is that the star seems outsize for the picture, like an elephant squeezed into a Mini. The problem here is quite the opposite: Meryl Streep is eerily in tune with the film's production-line drabness, but her performance is all technique one more for the accent collection - and no acting.

It's 1936 in Catholic Ireland and Kate, as played by Miss Streep, is wedded to the proposition that life sucks and ain't that grand. When her younger sisters (Catherine McCormack, Sophie Thompson, Kathy Burke, Brid Brennan), weary of mooching about their dank hovel, gaze wistfully out of the window and murmur wistfully about how nice it might be to go to the local dance, Kate reacts as if they've just suggested a bisexual bondage session with a couple of bishops. Energy in drama does not mean a lot of running around; you can have energy in the stillest place. But O'Connor has made the mistake of thinking that you can only make a film about repressed emotions by making a repressed film.

Dancing at Lughnasa does, of course, work its way up to a big dance number, which in theory ought to be a life-affirming finale that sends us out exhilarated and uplifted. But the girls let rip and kick up their clogs with such instant abandon that it makes about as much a sense as Hedda Gabler bursting into `I'm Just A Girl Who Cain't Say No'. Again, O'Connor misses the point: there can be enormous power in tentative, gradual surrender to dance look at the lead-in to the Merry Widow waltz, and a zillion other examples since. And, if he was trying to convey the liberating properties of dance on humdrum lives, the transition worked a lot better in Stepping Out.

Robert Benton's Twilight never quite explains its title, except insofar as, in ageist Hollywood, most of its cast are in the twilight of their careers - Paul Newman, James Garner, Gene Hackman and, given Hollywood's attitude to women over 23, probably its younger female stars as well, Stockard Channing and Susan Sarandon. …

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