Eyes on the Prize

They could be contenders. Or could they?

Dancing at Lughnasa
Directed by Pat O’Connor
Sony Pictures Classics

Gods and Monsters

Directed by Bill Condon
Lions Gate Films

Waking Ned Devine

Fox Searchlight Pictures
Directed by Kirk Jones

Living Out Loud

Directed by Richard LaGravenese
New Line Cinema

These days, studios are inordinately attentive to my viewing habits. As a member of the National Society of Film Critics, which votes a slate of year-end prizes, I’m fielding calls from eager publicists who want to make sure I’ve seen all those award-worthy movies featuring all those award-worthy performances. I’ve tried to stay mum, so as to keep my voting options open, but it’s hard for a guy brimming with opinions to be circumspect. Beloved? A worthy effort. Oprah? Worthiness incarnate; I feel unworthy even to sit in judgment. Meryl Streep in Dancing at Lughnasa? Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters? Leonardo DiCaprio in Celebrity? Damn worthy actors. (I enthused about DiCaprio when the sour Celebrity opened the New York Film Festival in September; since it shows up in theaters this week, you might want to click here so that I don’t have to quote myself.)

Streep should be awarded a rubber chicken for irradiating us with her yokel devotion in One True Thing (1998), but in Dancing at Lughnasa she goes a long way toward winning back her good (well, pretty good) name. As Kate Mundy, the stick-in-the-mud schoolteacher who presides over four younger, unmarried sisters in 1936 Donegal, Ireland, she holds her facial muscles tense and signals with her eyes her exhaustion from keeping them so fiercely in place. It is a terrible responsibility, upholding her society’s values and preventing her siblings and Michael, the illegitimate son of her youngest sister, Christina (Catherine McCormack), from descending into chaos and impoverishment. Not to mention the fact that she’s regarded by all as a stupid goose–or, as they call her in town, mocking her sexlessness, “the gander.”

Streep’s performance is layered and compelling, but the film doesn’t click. Closely based on Brian Friel’s play, it wilts in translation the way Friel’s potent but static dramas always do. On stage, every character, every prop, every interjection has a precise symbolic function; on film, those elements no longer stand out in relief. In Dancing at Lughnasa (it’s pronounced LOO-nassa), the sisters reside in a sterile and repressive Ireland–but one in which the pagan past continues to bubble up, most visibly in the harvest feast of Lughnasa, when peasants take to the hills to build fires, drink to even greater excess than usual, and dance orgiastically. The rite is liberating but also frightening: Remove a cork from a bottle so pressurized, and the contents are apt to explode.

The story, narrated by the now-grown Michael in the shopworn manner of The Glass Menagerie, is set in motion by the return of the boy’s Uncle Jack (Michael Gambon) from Africa, where he has toiled as a missionary priest. Delusional, barely remembering his English, Jack becomes a rambling (and, to the local priest, horrific) spokesman for paganism, encouraging all his sisters to emulate Christina and have “children of love.”

There isn’t much else in the way of a plot. Kate’s position at the school, which is overseen by the local priest, is imperiled by the subversive presence of her brother. Michael’s handsome dad (Rhys Ifans) roars back on a motorcycle to flirt with marriage to Christina: Will he stay or go fight the Fascists in Spain? Each sister chafes in her own way under Kate’s oppressive rule–especially Rose (Sophie Thompson), the “simple” one, who might or might not be having an affair with a man whose wife and children have abandoned him for London. A weaving factory is opening nearby and threatens the household income. In venerable Chekhovian fashion, what happens on the surface only hints at the titanic plates that shift beneath, but the actresses–especially Streep, Thompson, Kathy Burke, and Brid Brennan–are supreme at conveying what’s at stake. They create an indelibly glowering ensemble.

So why isn’t Dancing at Lughnasa more involving? It’s probably because the director, Pat O’Connor, can’t tell the difference between images that express Friel’s themes and Hibernian wallpaper, and because his idea of expansive, pictorial beauty proves no substitute for Friel’s powerfully compressed stage pictures. In the theater, the radio that crackles on and off signals a world elsewhere; and when it’s repaired and the stage is flooded with music and the sisters–beaten down, confronted with only the grimmest of economic and social prospects–begin to dance and then lose themselves in the freedom of the dance, the moment is truly cathartic. On-screen it means the movie’s almost over.

P eople think I’m kidding when I say that my favorite film is The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), but I can’t imagine how I’d have survived an especially grisly puberty without the comfort of watching Boris Karloff express his anguish to an uncomprehending world through a misshapen body and halting language. Few films have ever offered so inspired a blend of sentimentality, Grand Guignol horror, and sophisticated camp, or such deliriously inventive laboratory bric-a-brac. The film’s director, James Whale, has long been venerated for this and other droll ‘30s entertainments, among them The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933). Lately, he has also been scrutinized for being openly homosexual in an era when gay directors, such as George Cukor, kept that part of their lives rigidly compartmentalized. But not even David Ehrenstein in his trenchantly gossipy new book on the Hollywood closet, Open Secret, wants to make the case that Whale was penalized for his sexual preferences. If anything, the director seems to have suffered from a surfeit of dignity, proving too proud to overcome the loss of a powerful patron and a couple of ambitious flops. Comfortably rich, he took to painting and traveling before a series of strokes drove him to drown himself in his swimming pool–a suicide, though that fact was concealed from the public for 25 years.

Gods and Monsters, based on Father of Frankenstein, a novel by Christopher Bram, explores the last days of the director (Ian McKellen) through the prism of a (fictional) friendship with a handsome, muscular, and heterosexual groundskeeper, Boone (Brendan Fraser). Critics have been unanimous in predicting statuettes in McKellen’s future. Why? The movie is psychologically thin, artistically flabby, and symbolically opaque. Whale’s Frankenstein films weren’t personal testaments, but in Gods and Monsters they’re raided for murky fantasy sequences. In one, the groundskeeper is the monster staggering around with Whale in his arms; in another, Whale is laid out on a laboratory slab being operated on by the groundskeeper. What’s the metaphor? The script, meanwhile, is the stuff of bad two character plays, with spurious excuses for conflict (Boone storms out when Whale speaks tenderly of the naked, young men who once populated his pool) and a long, climactic monologue about a (fictional) wartime trauma that ostensibly shocked Whale into keeping his past under wraps. In Bram’s novel, Boone is vaguely dangerous, a plausible suspect in Whale’s death, but Fraser plays him (ingratiatingly) as a lovable lunk, and the conception removes whatever tension the material might have had.

As Whale, McKellen wears his elegance lightly. His face is fascinatingly two tiered: lean in long shot, in close-up its features distend to the point of acromegaly, the mouth going slack with lust. But Whale’s plangent ruminations are slack as well: “I’ve spent much of my life outrunning the past, and now it floods all over,” he tells Boone, in what is surely the most generic line for a “memory play” ever written. “Something about your face makes me want to tell the truth.” All this mawkishness would likely have annoyed the real Whale, who exited the world on his own terms and steered clear, in his art, of banality.

W > aking Ned Devine is this year’s stab at The Full Monty (1997), which made more than $100 million and even snagged an Oscar nomination. Set in a quaint olde Irish seacoast village, it tells the story of an elderly lottery player, Jackie O’Shea (Ian Bannen), who learns that one of his fifty-odd neighbors holds the winning ticket to a 7 million pound drawing. By a process of elimination, he and his buddy Michael O’Sullivan (David Kelly) end up at the remote stone house of Ned Devine–whom they find dead in his armchair with the ticket between his fingers, the shock of his windfall having felled him. As Devine has no living relations, it makes sense for the impoverished old men to cook up a scheme by which Michael will assume the dead fisherman’s identity, and the pair will divide the money between themselves.

It was no surprise to read that Kirk Jones, the film’s writer and director, doesn’t hail from a small town in the Irish Republic or anywhere close. He makes TV commercials in London. Deciding he’d like to make an eccentric regional comedy with universal themes, he journeyed to a village in Ireland, set himself up in the pub, and took notes on what he saw and heard. Then he wrote a script that’s one part Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero (1983), one part Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July (1940), and about five parts synthetic whimsy.

The movie is a passable entertainment–call it The Half Monty. It has standard issue (but funny) farcical sight gags and a score of panpipes to provide the requisite undercurrent of Celtic melancholy. There’s a witchy Margaret Hamilton type (Eileen Dromey) who rides some sort of electric wheelchair and attempts to spoil the whole caper. There’s also a stock ingénue (Susan Lynch) who loves the town’s endearing pig farmer (James Nesbitt) but won’t marry him because he smells so bad–and I’m not oversimplifying. Waking Ned Devine might have been a snooze if Jones hadn’t stocked it with a slew of old actors with magically lived-in visages. The owlish Bannen can twinkle without looking dear–there’s something saturnine in that face. As his Ed Norton-ish sidekick, Kelly walks off–or, rather, rides off–with the picture, his skeletal frame planted buck naked on a motorcycle as he rushes to reach Devine’s house before the man from the lottery. I see a future for elderly male actors willing to shed their clothes for laughs, but I don’t see myself in the audience.

T he term “slice of life” has come to mean dreary naturalism, but for the superb Richard LaGravenese, who wrote and directed Living Out Loud, that slice includes fantasy, fairy tale connections, sultry musical interludes, bridges that lead out, and bridges that lead nowhere. The movie, one of the year’s most pleasant surprises, is the antithesis of Todd Solondz’s Happiness, a humanist’s answer to Solondz’s evident conviction that life is all dead ends. When her cardiologist husband (Martin Donovan) leaves her, Judith Nelson (Holly Hunter) goes out into the world, her pain making her receptive to everything and everyone–from the elevator man (Danny DeVito) who returns her friendship with uninvited amorousness to the torch singer (Queen Latifah) who takes her to after-hours clubs, where she dances ecstatically with young women. Living Out Loud becomes an ode to openness, to letting in everything that the world throws at you. The movie made me remember why I like Holly Hunter. (I don’t always remember.) Her delivery isn’t moist–it’s prickly and blunt, and she can jabber convincingly, so that the jabbering takes on a life of its own and leaves her (sometimes horrified) in the dust. I might even vote for her.