Dancing at Lughnasa might have been titled The Five Sisters, so closely is it modeled on Chekhov’s play about women with great potential and almost no possibilities. Adapted from Brian Friel’s much lauded and awarded stage-play, Pat O’Connor’s film is set in rural Ireland during the Depression. The Mundy sisters, their expectations dwindling day by day, struggle to keep the roof of their family farmhouse over their heads.
Kate (Meryl Streep) is an unmarried schoolteacher, like Chekhov’s Olga. As the sole wage-earner, she’s become a bit of a patriarch, ordering her sisters about, trying to regulate their erotic lives, down to the last fantasy. Middle sister Rose (Sophie Thompson) is enamored, like Masha, of a married man. Where Chekhov’s middle sister was a world-class neurotic, Rose is just a bit “simple,” which makes her sisters fiercely protective of her. Christina (Catherine McCormack), the youngest, has borne a son out of wedlock. (She’s a kind of fallen version of Irina.) There are two other sisters, Agnes (Brid Brennan) and Maggie (Kathy Burke), whose characters are less well defined. (Having no prototypes in Chekhov perhaps puts them at a disadvantage.)
The film is couched as a memory piece, told from the point of view of Christina’s son Michael. It takes place during the summer of his eighth birthday, the summer that the sisters’ world collapses every which way. I don’t know how this framework functioned in the stage version, but in the film it’s so meretricious as to be offensive. Having laid claim in the opening scene to a young boy’s perspective, the director sloughs it off whenever it proves inconvenient— which is most of the time. (The film is filled with scenes that the child could not have witnessed.) O’Connor makes no expressive or narrative use of a child’s way of seeing; rather, he takes it as a rationale for the clichéd prettiness of the mise-en-scène and for not getting under the skin of his characters. It’s not the fault of the actresses that, for the most part, the five sisters seem like noble, long-suffering abstractions rather than flesh-and-blood women.
There’s as much misogyny involved in putting women on pedestals as in crushing them underfoot. Imagining the sisters as superhuman in their strength and resourcefulness lets the men off easy. When the grown-up Michael describes the sad fate of the sisters (including his mother), all I could think was, “What a bastard.” He profited from their story. The least he could have done was send some money home.
Still, it’s the actresses that everyone will be talking about. Burke, Thompson, and Brennan all have moments when they break free of the Masterpiece Theatre ambience. McCormack gives the only sustained performance as the quietly rebellious and most modern sister. As for Streep, it’s not her fault that the camera knows her too well to allow her to blend into the ensemble. But O’Connor’s direction doesn’t help. Do we really need to see three close-ups of Streep’s foot tapping before she joins the others in a climactic, overly choreographed eruption of primal female energy? Looked like your average jig to me.
On the other side of the gender divide is Eric Bross’s Ten Benny, a saga of 21-year-olds who, three years after their high-school graduation, are still hanging around their depressed New Jersey working-class ‘burb. Bross’s film has also lingered on the shelf too long. (It was completed in 1996.) In recent years, we’ve seen too many of these boys-coming-of-age films to distinguish one from the other. For a low-budget debut feature, Ten Benny is neatly put together but not exactly inspired. The reason to see it is Adrien Brody’s performance as a young greaseball on the make who’s only a trace more rational than Mean Streets‘s Johnny Boy. Bross has the sense to keep his camera on him as much as possible. Watch Brody’s skinny face as disbelief gives way to panic and rage when a horse he stupidly bet his life on comes in last.
In the past, the Margaret Mead festival has shown slight interest in films by or about women. This year, however, there are some fascinating feminist pieces in the mix, among them Elizabeth Subrin’s strangely informative Shulie, a reconstruction of a documentary made in 1967 about the brilliant radical feminist Shulamith Firestone, author of The Dialectic of Sex. Also not to be missed, Dear Dr. Spencer: Abortion in a Small Town, Danielle Renfew and Beth Seltzer’s doc about the much respected and loved Pennsylvania family doctor who, between 1930 and 1969, performed over 100,000 illegal abortions on women who came to him from all over America. This is the real— and far more subversive— Pleasantville.