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‘The Dead’ (PG)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 18, 1987

"The Dead" requires a little nostalgic override to enjoy it, as did those veteran finales "On Golden Pond" and Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander." The late John Huston's last film was made in his beloved Ireland, adapted from favorite author James Joyce and featuring his son Tony and daughter Anjelica.

There's a certain disarming sweetness to the film. The scenes are lit in amber warmth and Joyce's Dublin fable of lost hopes and living memories is treated with respect. But the acting pool is only adequate. In "The Dead" -- the film, that is -- the characters are uniformly empathetic, doing nothing to make you dislike them, carrying on with their lives quietly. No one particularly lights up the screen, though Donal Donnelly as the perpetually besotted Freddy and Bairbre Dowling as Miss Higgins come the closest.

Anjelica Huston as Gretta Conroy has little to do but look radiant (she has a sort of Rorschach beauty -- many see a butterfly, others make lowing noises). As the woman affected by a folk song, her supposedly pivotal role doesn't quite pivot. Her wistful confession to her husband about Michael, a former lover who died at a young age -- like many of the scenes in this film -- has only secondhand poignance. You ride on the power of Joyce's story rather than the film's adaptation.

The camera, loaded down with respect for Joyce, seems to forget that it's capable of moving about, changing its angle, closing in, catching a glance here, a movement there. It stays put -- a beaming, shy guest. You notice this when the camera finally does shift itself (which it's forced to do because people are leaving the party).

There's a memorable finale, a pleasant sequence of snow flakes falling over Irish countryside -- the "general snow over Ireland" segment of Joyce's story -- that wraps the film up with a warm flourish. But it comes too late. This was the kind of party that, unless you knew the people very well, you wouldn't go out of your way to attend.

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