In the Gloaming: Conor McPherson's 'The Eclipse' mixes horror and romance

The Eclipse, a magnificent Irish film directed and co-written by Conor McPherson, takes place during a literary festival in the seaside town of Cobh, County Cork. McPherson and fellow playwright Billy Roche based their screenplay on Roche’s short story collection Tales from Rainwater Pond and one piece “Table Manners” in particular. At its center is a trinity of writers, two of whom see dead people, which leads to romance.

Half-ghost story, half-love story, “The Eclipse” contains a handful of terrifying moments during which life and death are shown as indivisible. These brief, remarkably suspenseful scenes are the film’s most memorable feature; they are achieved not through the magic of CGI or using any other technical wizardry, but rather via crisp editing, vivid atmospherics and a keen sense of the dramatic. Layered beneath is a subtler connection between everyday domestic rituals and meaningful ceremonies we normally associate with art and religion. Both intersections are rendered with an engaging naturalism.

The movie begins with preparations for the banquet kicking off the festival. We glimpse details of an 18th-century pastoral landscape, presumably hanging on the wall, and watch as chairs are arranged, tables set and candles lit inside the hall. Evoking a combination of sacred and secular worship, this title sequence also clues us into the fact we’re in the new, affluent Ireland—a modern country in which a native, book-loving leisure class and Euro swells are equally comfortable. There are no leprechauns to be found here, but mystical instincts have not been eradicated altogether. 

We see the festival volunteer Michael Farr (Ciaran Hinds) seated with his two children at the banquet. When they arrive home later, Michael tends to domestic chores, emptying the dishwasher and making sure his 11-year-old boy and 14-year-old girl brush their teeth before bed. He’s a widower and the pall of grief, though not necessarily fresh, is obvious—even the family dog appears to be in mourning. That night, Michael hears an eerie knocking and gets up to look for the source. Is he imagining things or are there spirits lurking about?

Adding to the haunting quality of this episode, Michael realizes that he forgot to fetch his deceased wife's father, Malachy (Jim Norton), and bring him to the banquet. The next day, he visits Malachy’s nursing home, which sits opposite Cobh’s St. Colman’s Cathedral. “Don’t ever let them put you in a home, Michael,” Malachy complains. Michael tells him about the disturbing dreams he’s been having. Haggard and dispirited, Malachy declares that losing a child is far worse than losing a spouse. “It almost makes you think there can’t be a God,” he confides.

With the festival under way, Michael, a high-school woodwork teacher and unpublished author, is assigned to chauffeur visiting writers. His first passenger is the celebrity novelist Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn). Obnoxious and perpetually sodden, Nicholas complains of being “surrounded by lamebrains and dilettantes” on the festival circuit. “The guys who drive you around are the worst!” he tells the late-arriving Lena Morelle (Danish actress Iben Hjejle), author of a book entitled The Eclipse. The portrait of the fatuous artist—equally conceited and insecure, whether a writer, filmmaker, or theater director—is nicely drawn and Quinn’s performance is spot-on. Although married, Nicholas has been infatuated with Lena ever since they spent a passionate night together during the prior year’s festival. He can’t wait to declare his feelings but she’s loath to rekindle the affair.

It’s no wonder he is obsessed. Lena, whom Michael also shuttles around, is a sensuous and sensitive middle-aged woman. She’s on edge however, and not simply due to Nicholas’s drunken ardor. She’s spooked by her surroundings, and during a public reading from her book about a dead girl who implores her mother “from the gloom,” we realize she’s fixated on spectral phenomena. Michael compliments her work and inquires whether she thinks ghosts really exist. She believes they appear when someone is close to death.

Gradually, the two grow close; their tour of a local abbey is especially meaningful. Meanwhile, the spurned Nicholas starts to act out and Michael’s visions become more urgent and distressing. They include sightings of a little girl. On his way back from the cottage where Lena is staying one evening, an amorous fantasy is interrupted by a horrific apparition. The movie’s pattern of alternating startlingly dramatic flashes with more ordinary, yet equally stressful events continues when he arrives home after this jolt and must deal with a mini-crisis involving his son. The most wrenching example comes later when we watch Michael dropping his kids off for their tennis lesson the day after the family bears another trauma. 

Eventually, we glean that Michael’s wife died two years ago. As in real life, her loss is still felt intensely. Such a realistic take on the timing of the grieving process is rare. In most films, people are expected to “get over” a death in short order or else be deemed morbid. Lena shares a familiar and plausible insight into bereavement: “You hang on to the pain because you’re afraid that if you don’t you’ll lose them.” She observes, “You’re terrified of forgetting that person.” “The Eclipse” argues that the sorrow cannot be brushed aside or papered over, no matter how mundane the pain or how much solace one’s new caretaking duties provide. Even fresh emotional attachments can’t magically dilute a loss.

McPherson, a three-time Tony nominee whose most recent play is “The Seafarer,” brings a theatrical sense of timing to the tightly-plotted proceedings. He also offers purely cinematic pleasures by exploiting the lovely scenery and including lyrical, wordless interludes. He skillfully blends droll humor, fisticuffs and romantic melodrama with the frightening but minimally gory apparitions. Much of the action unfolds in transition lighting—in the gloaming or at daybreak—when the contrast between dark and light is muted and shadows accentuated. The resulting mood heightens the emotions, which the superb cast projects without ever veering into the maudlin. Some viewers may find the repetition of composer Fionnuala Ní Chiosáin’s main theme a bit much, but at least it’s beautiful. And there are enough bulwarks against the twee.

Whether Michael’s apparitions are real or exist only in his head isn’t essential. Although not addressed directly, there are indications Michael’s Catholic faith is dormant but intact. Religious symbols are all around—from icons and statuary to the tolling of the cathedral bells, from the nuns Michael passes on the cathedral steps to the soundtrack humming with ethereal choral music. Describing “The Eclipse” as “gothic” or equating its tone with the Irish temperament is too reductive. Rather, this is the way McPherson, whose stage plays often contain supernatural elements, views things. Ghosts and inklings of the transcendent are as normal as the romantic, dramatic and antic moments in daily life; because they’re jumbled together in our actual experience, they’re often obscured. 

McPherson has spoken of his desire to imbue his works with “a sense of the mystery of existence” and “a sense of wonder.” He certainly succeeds in “The Eclipse,” a movie with the capacity to scare you, make you cry and ultimately bestow a sense of tranquility. It suggests that, faced with images of un-tethered souls and the weight of grief, we can be calmed and lifted by the quotidian and the grand alike—by solitary, everyday rituals that don’t appear to be creative and through communal ceremonies that are neither completely sacred nor secular. Both types of activity defy rational explanation and are immune to tidy resolution. The same might be said of our appetite for horror and romance.

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