Film Review: The Dead

I had wanted to see John Huston’s final film, a production of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” for years, but it was almost impossible to find.  It had never been released on DVD in the U.S. (though it had in Europe), the VHS was out of print and expensive to obtain, neither the library district nor any retail outlet had a copy…the only possible place to get my hands on it was the one old VHS tape still in the collection of the Lied Library at UNLV.

So, on my last day on campus at the end of this last semester, I went over to the library and borrowed their copy and spent 90 minutes sitting in their staff media room, watching the film.

It was magnificent.  Filmed in a quiet, slow, mutely somber way by film great John Huston, and starring his daughter, the inimitable Angelica Huston, the film is not only scrupulously faithful to its source, but reproduces its sumptuously austere, refined, turn-of-the-century Irish setting with an exultant reverence that invites the viewer to settle into the world of Joyce’s love.  An early scene takes us from a mild party in the parlor, where an old song is being played and sung for the entertainment of the company, to another room where the camera pans and lingers on photographs that provide both back story and further pull us into the emotional landscape.  Most directors would have wasted such a scene as a throwaway over which they’d run the opening credits, perhaps, but in the hands of Huston, as the muted music from below brushes us with its feathers, it becomes an incomparably sublime paean to Ireland. 

Relatively obscure Irish actor Donal McCann leads a fine Irish cast (including an early cameo by a very young Colm Meaney), and subtly shines as Gabriel Conroy, flawlessly conveying his discomfort, for example, at a mild confrontation with a young female servant to whom he hastily shoves some money and from whom he then hurriedly and ignominiously escapes.  Conroy’s emotional constipation is very difficult to convey visually, and McCann is a cerebral delight, realizing the challenge in a way so perfectly mirroring countless frustrated suburban automatons that one forgets that this is even a movie, and not a stylized documentary reenactment, though one crafted at an absurdly beatific level. 

But the real treat here is Angelica Huston, perhaps still best known to mainstream audiences from her lead roles in The Addams Family and Ever After, who glows in the background here until the final minutes, when her character experiences an emotional shock that leaves her softly sobbing and hiding her face.  A lesser actress would have ripped out hysterical sobs, but Huston’s choice to underplay the woman’s sorrow is wrenchingly realistic, and delivers a punch of pathos far more intense than any out of place histrionics ever could have. 

Even if the casual viewer found the preceding hour and a half mundane, the final moments elevate the film to the realm of classic art.  McCann’s best work in the film is given as he himself is invisible, narrating Joyce’s closing narrative monologue over scenes of an Irish winter evening.  The voice, the words, and the scenery bond so organically that I can’t imagine one part now without the others.  The entire film until this point built up to this, and the finale is shudderingly haunting. 

Looking the film up again online as I wrote this review, I found that an American DVD version had just been released last November, but in a poorly edited form.  I’d love to see this film again and again, but it seems a convenient format is still wanting.  For this fine film, I must share Gabriel Conroy’s unrealized ambitions for fulfillment for now.

2 comments on “Film Review: The Dead

  1. I saw this in a college class in the mid ’90s and have been recommending it ever since without realizing that it was so hard to track down.

    It’s hands down the best film adaptation of a work of literary fiction that I’ve ever seen. I’m pleased to find another fan of it out there.

  2. Thank you, William. I probably should have also mentioned that the recent American release with the introduction cut is available to see directly at Amazon for three dollars. The next time I see it, it will most likely be there.

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