We Love… 25 Years of Irish Film – The Dead

Illustration: Adeline Pericart

So Film Ireland magazine is 25 years old. Over those years Ireland has produced some great films which have been successful both here and abroad – not to mention nabbing a few Oscars® along the way. And so over the next couple of weeks Film Ireland‘s army of cinema dwellers look back over the last 25 years and recall their favourite Irish films in the latest installment of…


We Love…

25 Years of Irish Film

 

The Dead

(John Huston, 1987)

‘… a warm and wonderfully crafted film…’

Daire Walsh

 

25 years ago, when Film Ireland was in its infancy, John Huston’s
final film, The Dead, was enjoying a Christmas-time release, four
months on from the sad passing of its legendary director. Adapted from
the James Joyce story of the same name (it has featured in the
acclaimed Irish writer’s short works collection Dubliners), The Dead
was Huston’s 37th feature film as a director, and came just two years
after his final Academy Award® nomination for Prizzi’s Honor.

With a brief running time of 83 minutes, and a short text source that
effectively confines the drama to a series of extended scenes, it
would have been easy for The Dead to be viewed as an incidental entry
in John Huston’s extensive body of work.

However, despite having to battle serious health issues while making
the film (he was aided by an oxygen tube hanging from his nose),
Huston produced something special, which has stood the test of time in
the intervening years, becoming one of the best Irish films of the
modern age.

Written by Huston’s own son, Tony Huston (an Oscar® nominee the
following spring), The Dead takes place in 1904 Dublin at an Epiphany
party held by two elderly sisters. It is in many ways an ensemble
piece, though the main focus does fall upon Donal McCann’s academic
Gabriel Conroy, and his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston), who is
harbouring painful memories of a deceased former lover.

Going by this general synopsis, one could be forgiven for wondering
where Huston was going to be able to find enough material to make The
Dead work as a feature length effort. Of course, it could be argued
that this was no bad thing, as Joyce’s work has proven to be
incredibly difficult to adapt down through the years, and the easier
it is to understand his treatments, the better it will be for those
who are attempting to bring his unique mind onto the silver screen.

Certainly, though there are a few close contenders, The Dead has been
firmly established as the best cinematic depiction of Joyce’s work,
and there are a number of reasons for this. First of all, there are
the performances. The late, great McCann and Huston hold the film
together beautifully, bringing real gravitas to the proceedings, with
Donal Donnelly (who would go on to appear in The Godfather Part III
before sadly passing away in 2010) on prime scene-stealing form as the
alcoholic Freddy Malins, who is desperately trying to appear
respectable in the presence of his mother.

Dan O’Herlihy brings Mr. Browne fabulously to life in the same year
that he appeared in Paul Verhoeven’s seminal sci-fi classic RoboCop,
and there is also an early role for future Star Trek star Colm Meaney.
Perhaps the most surprising performance comes courtesy of tenor Frank
Patterson, who plays baritone Bartell D’Arcy, but finds himself having
to take part in the drama itself, and coping exceptionally well in the
process.

One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.’

 

From the point of view of production design, the work done by Stephen
Grimes and Dennis Washington is flawless, and the Oscar®-nominated
costume design by Dorothy Jeakins is also to be lauded.
Cinematographer Fred Murphy (whose work can currently be seen on TV’s
The Good Wife) generates great mood and atmosphere as he moves back
and forth between various characters, and Alex North breathes fresh
vigour into the story with his musical composition.

Yet, when it boils down to it, this film belongs to John Huston in
every way possible. For the man who was the mastermind of such
incredible films like The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen and The
Man Who Would Be King to produce a such a warm and wonderfully crafted
film at a very late point in his career was truly remarkable.

Comedy had never really been Huston’s forte throughout his career, but
many of the scenes in The Dead are laced with humour, especially the
ones that feature Donnelly, and despite the problems he was going
through during the course of filming, it was clear that Huston was
aiming to venture into areas that he had not encountered before.

The way that Huston blended the comedic elements and dramatic elements
of the story together fitted perfectly with the aesthetic of the film,
and though this was a different kind of John Huston film, it was in
fact one that was very close to his heart.

As an adopted Irish citizen, and a fan of classic literature, Huston
finally got a chance to show his love of both worlds. Many personal
projects by directors tend to fail due to the over-inflated hubris of
the director, but The Dead avoids falling into this trap, and is in no
way portentous, despite the reputation that both Huston and Joyce have
in their respective fields.

As a film, The Dead is probably not to everyone’s taste, and doesn’t
aim to offer the same sort of thrills of Huston’s earlier films, but
you will struggle to find many better made Irish films over the past
25 years, or indeed in years to come.

 

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