Monday, April 27, 2009

Tribeca ’09: The Eclipse

Thanks to great Irish supernatural writers like J. Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker, we like to think of Ireland as a land of banshees and haunted castles. The BBC recently bolstered that popular image with a report of a ghostly apparition sighted along a country road in County Tyrone, so perhaps widower Michael Farr should not be so alarmed by his ghostly visions. Except the protagonist of Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s The Eclipse is seeing the spirit of someone who has not died yet. Despite such supernatural elements, it would be a mistake to dismiss McPherson’s film as a mere ghost story. It is an emotionally complex work that has generated the most buzz (in my subjective judgment) among films currently screening at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.

Cobh in County Cork certainly looks like a picturesque seaport conducive to haunting. It also hosts an annual literary festival, which Farr always volunteers at, even though he has long forsaken his literary ambitions. At the current festival, he has been assigned to schlep two famous authors: the arrogant popular novelist Nicholas Holden and Lena Morelle, a sensitive writer of literary supernatural fiction. Much to Morelle’s regret, she shared an ill-advised night of passion with Holden at previous conference and would now prefer to forget the entire matter. Unfortunately, the married Holden has become obsessed with her.

When not shuttling his literary guests back and forth, Farr must tend to his two children and Malachy McNeill, the dying father of his late wife. Late one night, Farr wakens to spy a figure that might be his father-in-law stalking through the house. Although he is still quite lucid and can be accounted for during the times in question, Farr continues to be haunted by something that suggests the irascible old man, in visitations of increasing intensity. Farr experiences further angst as he comes to share Holden’s hopeless attraction to Morelle.

Eclipse gives the audience some legitimate chills thanks to McPherson’s deft direction and the eerie sound effects (edited by Jon Stevenson) that really create the desired state of apprehension. However, it is a much richer film than a simple chiller. On a deeper level, Eclipse is a meditation on how closely grief and love intertwine and reinforce each other.

Ciarán Hinds gives a tour-de-force performance as Farr, a man of many fears, regrets, and insecurities. Screaming in terror one minute and then playing a scene of touching beauty the next, Hinds is called upon to just about everything in this film, but he never takes a false step. Dutch actress Iben Hjejle also gives a wonderfully understated performance as the warm but sophisticated Morelle. Only Aidan Quinn’s performance as Holden comes across a bit one-dimensional, seeming to existence just to create problems for other people (of course, people like this unfortunately tend to pop up in real life).

While McPherson is one of those Irish supernatural writers himself, using ghostly motifs in plays like Shining City and The Weir, Eclipse is based on a short story by Billy Roche, who co-wrote the screenplay with the playwright-director. The result is extremely cinematic and not at all stagey. It does supply some good spine tingles, but it also a deeply satisfying, exquisitely crafted human drama. A definite festival highlight, it screens again on Tuesday (4/28) and Thursday (4/30).