"The Dead," the late John Huston's film of the James Joyce short story, has a mellifluous simplicity. The images flow so easily and the filmmaking is so self-effacing, so direct and economical, that you don't expect it to affect you as powerfully as it does. Huston's approach here is so assured that it verges on the serene. The movie's musicality enfolds you, pulls you into its world, and into the rhythms of its period. Watching it, you're momentarily swept away, and the experience -- like the experience of anything great in art -- is rapturous, consuming, sublime.
Huston tells his story -- as Joyce did -- through an accretion of sensuous detail. And the narrative, which traces the course of a single evening in January of 1904 at a party in the home of the sisters Kate and Julia Morkan and their niece Mary Jane, is told as naturally as if it were being recited from memory.
The movie begins with a shot of the Morkans' town house in Dublin as the guests bustle out of the snow and into the foyer. Immediately, the effect is that of emerging from the cold and being plunged into an atmosphere of cozy domesticity and warmth. Upstairs, Aunt Julia (Cathleen Delany) and Aunt Kate (Helena Carroll) perch on the landing, inquiring after their guests and receiving their compliments. The Morkans' party is a yearly gathering of Dublin intellectuals, musicians and cultural lights, and as the characters make their entrances, we see that for years the sisters have functioned as the official center of the city's cultural world.
Each of the characters is well known to the others, and their roles in the group have become well established over time. As Huston draws them, the members of the party emerge as affectionate comic portraits. And the work that he has received from his performers -- most of them well-known Irish character actors -- is the most inspired sort of ensemble playing. The pleasure that we take from watching these actors inhabit their roles can't be underestimated; a more glorious congregation of faces may never have appeared on the screen. And Huston seems to revel in the wealth.
The atmosphere that Huston creates is that of a big, gregarious family, with each of the members taking a turn beguiling and entertaining the guests, telling a joke or a story or sitting down at the piano. The richness in this, the feeling of connectedness and communality, is nowhere in Joyce presented as seductively as it is in this story. This is the forgiving, sympathetic side of Joyce's attitude toward his homeland and his people. But the author, even in a magnanimous mood, was forever ambivalent about Ireland, and Huston is keenly attuned to the conflicting emotions that run through the story.
What Huston conveys in its fullness is Joyce's sensitivity to the charms of the place and the counterpoint of his fear that they will entangle him and prevent his escape. The character of Gabriel (Donal McCann), who reviews books for the British paper (and gets tweaked for his unpatriotic behavior by one of the guests), is the writer's vision of himself as a middle-aged failure, as the artist who lingered in the comforting glow of the Morkans' hearth and withered away.
Gabriel is the self-conscious center of the movie. We see the events of the night, and the characters' actions, through his eyes, and McCann is magnificently subtle in showing the mixture of disdain and regret that Gabriel feels.
Gabriel can't help but see himself as superior to the endearing parochialism of his friends. In the story, Gabriel's resentment is more vehement; he hates the dullness of the sticks and longs to be elsewhere, where new ideas are breaking. Huston has softened these sentiments; Gabriel's mood is more resigned than angry. And his tendency to affect a grander style has become an occasion for good-natured ribbing from his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston).
Gabriel's resignation deepens as the night progresses. As he does every year, he delivers a speech after the sumptuous dinner is served, praising the three hostesses -- whom he christens "the Three Graces" -- as examples of Ireland's greatest virtue, its hospitality, and the rhetorical flourish that he gives his words isn't all empty show. He realizes that his performance is truer than he thinks; that he is connected to this world, which he sees as bound up in the past, weighed down with nostalgia and sentimentality.
This realization fills Gabriel with an overwhelming, indefinable longing, and we can feel the emotion welling up within him. It comes to a climax in a moment of almost unnatural stillness. As Gretta and Gabriel are leaving, a voice from an upstairs room is heard singing "The Lass of Aughrim." Gretta stops immediately on the stair to listen, as does Gabriel, and the look he sees on his wife's face is not one he recognizes; she seems transfigured, lost in the music, and in Gabriel's eyes, she has never been more alluring.
In that moment, Gabriel is drawn to his wife as never before, but it is unlikely that he has ever been less in her thoughts. Joyce conceived "The Dead" in part as a story about a marriage, and in part as a homage to his wife Nora. But in truth it may be a testament to the impossibility of any real union between man and woman. The movie ends with the couple in the hotel room they've booked for the night in order to avoid the long drive home. There Gretta tells Gabriel about a young boy who loved her back in Galway, who used to sing to her, and who died, very young, of heartbreak over her.
This is a movie of exquisite, overwhelmingly passionate moments, but Anjelica Huston pours such emotion into this story that her lines seem like a scraping away of the soul; it's almost unendurably painful. The emptiness that Gabriel feels after she has cried out her last line -- "Oh, the day I heard that, that he was dead!" -- is nearly unendurable as well. In addition to what he calls "the riot of emotion" he has felt all night, he has been made aware of the insignificance of his place in his wife's life, and he cannot help but feel a kind of jealousy for the love that his wife shared with the dead boy.
In telling this story, Huston and his son Tony, who wrote the script, have adopted Joyce's restrained formal classicism. Ultimately, they rely on the writer's words as well, and the affinity that Huston feels for his material is evident here in every frame; you almost imagine that you can hear the director's strong, whiskey-and-cigarettes voice under the visuals.
What we see in Huston's direction of "The Dead" is an artist working out of the core of his talent, cleanly and without uncertainty, and bringing to bear the accumulated experience of a long career. Luis Bunåuel attained this freedom of expression, and so did Jean Renoir, and Huston's achievement here is on par with theirs.
The movie was Huston's last and it's a great culminating work. As such, it couldn't be more perfect. "The Dead" is sonorous, moving and deeply funny -- a work of great feeling and beauty.
The Dead, at the Outer Circle, is rated PG.