Ghosts, grief, and redemption in ‘The Eclipse’
‘The Eclipse’’ could almost be considered outsider art. Directed by Conor McPherson, an Irish playwright/stage director, the film is based on a story by the writer-actor Billy Roche. Not surprisingly, it unfolds with the muted allusiveness of the best short fiction and the attention to character of a good play. As cinema, “The Eclipse’’ is less sure of itself, but the trade-off feels fair.
Above all, the film is lucky to have one of the better character actors in recent movies in a lead role: Ciarán Hinds as Michael Farr, a woodworking teacher in the seaport town of Cobh, in County Cork. Hinds’s great, dour coffin of a face fits the role: Michael, father of two growing children, has lost his wife to cancer and is stalled in a limbo of mourning. He also has a literary bent — we learn he gave up writing long ago — and as the movie opens has volunteered for a local book festival, driving the visiting authors from hotels to their readings.
One of his charges is Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle, a Danish actress best known here for the John Cusack comedy “High Fidelity’’), a pretty, nervy writer of supernatural fiction. If you think you know where “The Eclipse’’ is going at this point, you’re not entirely wrong, but McPherson and Roche are far less interested in the clichés of romantic drama than in the ways people can speak to each other without saying much at all.
Unexpectedly, they’re also interested in ghosts. A spine-tingling early scene in which Michael awakes to see the spectral figure of his father-in-law (Jim Norton) drifting through the living room serves notice that “The Eclipse’’ will be very much going its own way, and part of the attraction between Michael and Lena is their mutual acknowledgment that the dead never leave us, metaphorically or otherwise.
The father-in-law is in fact alive and in a local nursing home, railing against his failing body. Yet he keeps turning up in Michael’s dreams and waking life with a ghoulish suddenness better suited to a horror movie. Perhaps his spirit is hiding the true object of Michael’s grief the way an eclipse blocks the sun; we’re left to our own conclusions in ways that both work for the movie and against it.
The wild card in “The Eclipse’’ is Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn), a successful American author and egotistical blowhard who hopes to repeat the one-night stand he once enjoyed with Lena. The character seems built from equal parts of John Irving and Raymond Carver, with a dash of self-delusional Hemingway thrown in, and Quinn has a high old time letting Nicholas embarrass himself in scene after scene. His mistake is to think Lena wants passion, when it’s Michael’s inarticulate self-possession that draws her in.
The filmmakers work hard to sustain a tone of quiet watchfulness, and sometimes the story seems in danger of floating away, only to be brought up short by grisly shock tactics. A more experienced director might have navigated the shifts better, but also might not trust his characters and themes to reveal themselves with such lambent grace. The town and surrounding landscapes make a gorgeous setting — the Irish tourist board will be happy — but at its heart “The Eclipse’’ is a small, contained ghost story about a haunted man learning to exorcise himself.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.