The inevitability of death permeates through John Huston’s remarkable final film. The adaptation of the short story of the same name by James Joyce, The Dead tells the story of an Epiphany party held in Dublin in 1904 and its aftermath. Whether it is the director himself, sick and frail whilst making the film (it would be released posthumously) or the beautiful monologue at the end of the film revealing that ‘one by one we’re all becoming shades’. Death hangs over this film like a shroud. There is talk of the loss of a life in the film too, an expected and profoundly moving loss but the knowledge of this arrives unexpectedly. This reveal is wonderfully done in the hands of a filmmaker who expertly knew how to handle such material.
And yet the film begins in almost jovial fashion with the arrival of several carriages of people to the party on a snowy Dublin night. The two elderly sisters are at the top of the stairs in a bit of a frenzy, nervously wondering if a particular guest Freddie Malins (the wonderful Donal Donnelly) will arrived ‘stewed’. The arrival of nephew Gabriel (Donal Mc Cann) and his wife Gretta (Angelica Huston) calms their nerves somewhat as it is expected that he will keep an eye on Freddie. Freddie duly arrives a little drunk and the stage is seemingly set for a comic dinner. But this being Joyce and not Wilde, this is not the case.
It becomes so much more. Seemingly innocuous conversations have underlying meanings. As the men and women dance before dinner, the camera seems to float beautifully between them. Snatches of conversations are heard from the various dance partners and it is clear that there is some unease beneath the surface. That there is tension between Gabriel and Gretta and this may have something to do with another woman at the party, Mrs. Ivors (Maria Mc Dermottroe) who Gabriel dances with. She rebukes him for holidaying in France instead of the west of Ireland. She is a political woman, calling Gabriel a ‘West Briton’ for looking to England instead of his own country. There is again a feeling of death just out of reach here: The Great War is only 10 years away, the Easter Rising 2 years after that.
One of the elderly sisters Miss Julia (Cathleen Delaney) sings a song ‘Arrayed for the Bridal’ and it is here that age and death take centre stage. As she sings slightly out of tune with a very weak voice Huston’s camera cuts away to show empty rooms and things like ornaments of angels to underscore her old age. As she finishes, there is an artificial rush to congratulate her for her singing. Freddie, by now drunk, says that he has never heard her sing better. Embarrassingly he keeps repeating this and the others start to look away. It is another song that leads to the most magnificent of endings however. One of the guests, Mr. Darcy (the Irish tenor Frank Patterson) sings a beautifully sad song called ‘The Lass of Aughrim’. This brings to the surface long buried feelings of loss and guilt.
The cast are uniformly excellent, with special mention going to Donal Mc Cann and Donal Donnelly. Angelica Huston is also wonderful, all glances and pain hidden just out of sight. Cinematography is wonderful with the camera intimately moving from room to room. The set is beautifully lit with candles everywhere which further underlines the shadows cast by the story. It is a wonderful film, richly textured, remarkably quiet but asking the big questions in this way. This is about life, what we do with it while we are here, and how it affects others when we are gone. But these themes are woven into the fabric of the film by a director of some skill. The Dead is now 25 years old yet if feels like it could have been made today. Yet with a literary heritage that is the envy of the world, the question has to be asked as to why Irish filmmakers are not making films from such rich source material. It is a question for another article perhaps, the joy here is that The Dead was made at all and for that we should all be thankful.