Dancing At Lughnasa tells the story of one summer in the lives of five unmarried grown-up sisters living in a farm house outside the small Irish town of Ballybeg in 1936. Narrated in a looking-back mode by one sister's illegitimate son, it's of the "things were never the same after that summer" genre which was acutely lampooned earlier this year in The Opposite of Sex.
The five sisters have personalities so distinct that we can quickly separate them out while wondering if they really came from the same litter. Kate (Meryl Streep) is a repressed school teacher, which is a terrible cliché, but since it's Streep it's limned with nuance; there's a fragility to her general air of disapproval which makes her sympathetic. Maggie (Kathy Burke) is the earthy one, a condition symbolized by her constant smoking. Christina (Catherine McCormick) is the pretty unwed mother of the narrator. Rose (Sophie Thompson) is the simple-minded one and Agnes (Brid Brennan) is the soulfully sad one and Rose's self-appointed guardian.
During the summer in question, the quintet is visited by two men: Christina's reprobate lover (Rhys Ifans), who is stopping by on his way to fight in the Spanish Civil War, and their brother Jack (Michael Gambon), a priest returning from Africa after 25 years.
That's a lot of characters to cram into a 90-minute movie, which is one of the reasons why no one really develops beyond their tics and surface traits. Gambon's role, especially, is underwritten -- though expertly acted. As a priest who has become seriously unmoored by his immersion in an alien culture, he initially seems to embody one of the film's themes -- local faith confronting a larger reality -- but quickly settles into being merely a dithering eccentric.
Dancing At Lughnasa -- which could be translated as "whistling in the dark" -- is based on a play by Brian Friel and has been thoughtfully opened up; it's nongratuitously scenic. But the play builds up to a cathartic dance sequence, which in the movie, already visually rich, is diminished in impact. What we're left with is a well-acted but rather sketchy depiction of hopelessness, sealed by a bleak voice-over epilogue.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at email@example.com.