Between grief and nothing, widower and father-of-two Michael Farr (Ciarán Hinds) chooses grief — a perfectly Gothic response in Irish dramatist Conor McPherson’s excellent and often breathtaking new film, The Eclipse. In this atmospheric and spectral portrait — apparitions and startling hues expertly double to ROUSE you from the beautifully lulling gloom — Michael gets psychologically and physically beaten out of his Edgar Allan Woe phase (his middle-aged, ecclesiastic face initially spells “nevermore” to the opposite sex) over a cathartic weekend spent volunteering at the local Cobh Literary Festival. He chauffeurs two writers caught in an internecine relationship themselves.
For the taut, act-divided narrative, McPherson partnered with fellow Irishman of letters Billy Roche to adapt and expand upon Roche’s short story “Table Manners” (from Tales From Rainwater Pond). A literary festival is the pair’s bailiwick so the two duly infuse the underexposed event with a few knowing, behind-the-book-sleeve flourishes, enveloping us in readings, forced hobnobbing, and elaborate soirées in which the buttoned-up turn into the soused (in-joke: Roche also stars as the convivial festival head). Among the gathered literary talent is the best-selling author Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn), who’s revealed — in two scenes flat — to be a bumptious asshole.
Lo and behold though: the smug madman claims to have become an Eliotian hollow man when he sees fetching supernatural-fiction writer Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle), who’s been lured to this schmoozapalooza by his bait-and-switch. “I’m a miserable fake,” he immediately belts to her with possessed, welled-up eyes, harping on about last year’s one-night fling as if the two had consummated their affair at Marienbad. She responds to this leave-my-wife thrust with leave-me-be parry, yet he’s as obsessive about claiming his literal prize as any egomaniacal scribe.
Throughout The Eclipse, Nicholas comes to represent the moon-faced, bellicose obstacle standing in between Michael and his new romantic “charge” — the tense, and only, occasion where Michael has to be alone and verbally spar with Nicholas sets up the climactic contretemps. Michael’s attraction to Lena stems, in part, from her expertise on a subject that’s not exactly meet-cute material: ghosts. “Terrified of forgetting” his wife (he, and we, won’t) and tasked with raising a teenage daughter (Hannah Lynch) and adolescent son (Eanna Hardwicke) by his clueless lonesome, he begins to envision that terrorizing Gothic staple, each “apparition” popping up at the most inopportune times (i.e. middle of the night or while driving in the dark). These brusque bursts of the uncanny not only mangle his nerves and psyche, but his actual body. And while they might be unnecessarily sudden — an assault aided by superb, pin-drop sound design — and ultimately inexplicable, these shock-and-ahh appearances jar us and put us in his vulnerable stead as he slowly moves towards self-resolution. Through these expected pathetic fallacies, we too “feel harassed by life.”
Michael and Lena’s relationship unfurls across a travelogue of Cobh’s grayed, aged structures and its evergreen purlieus, all lushly shot through with unexpected flecks of color — an azure door, a tricolor windowpane that recalls Mondrian. The cityscape’s magnificent Cathedral of Saint Colman (the tale’s Dakota Building) looms especially portentous, a dispassionate witness to a century’s-old narrative played out below. This eerie yet scenic setting formidably buttresses McPherson’s assured handling of that omnipresent feeling of dread — this may not be Haggis, but we know an impending collision awaits when we see the intersecting lives. A mood-setting, repeating blend of crescendos, dirgeful piano, and tried-and-true choral arrangements that denote the spiritual, the film’s music (composed by Fionnuala Ni Chiosain, McPherson’s wife) works beautifully in spurts, and when it does, it soars.
While McPherson bluntly visualizes a boatload of his character’s psychological states, the excellent performances retain a mystery. The comely Hjejle ably shapes Lena as not only an object of desire, but a creature of impulse, apt to dash to an ailing Nicholas’ side or to risk a little tenderness. Meanwhile, Quinn’s charismatic and monstrous performance screams all-eyes-on-me, while brilliantly adding a dash of feasible if fleeting weakness to a whack job during a disorienting, mask-on-mask-off search for Lena at a gathering. In short, he’s the perfect expressive foil for the reserved Hinds. Solid and natural as an oak, Hinds is indeed capital as the absorbing lead who feels more comfortable in the background. With a hint of humor here and there and a sense of loss everywhere (he’s also a would-be writer), his unassuming presence moors McPherson’s lyrical and satisfying effort in a modesty that’s altogether becoming.
The Eclipse screens both tonight and Thursday night at Tribeca; click here for the details.