Irish playwright and filmmaker Conor McPherson spins an unconventional ghost yarn in his new movie “The Eclipse.” The tragic, yet hopeful, story, based on a collection of short works by Billy Roche, follows widower Michael Farr (Ciarán Hinds) as he longs for an encounter with the supernatural, if only to prove he is still alive.
Michael lives in the peaceful, Gothic town of Cobh, County Cork on Ireland’s south shore with his two children. They inhabit a house that is slightly too large for them following the death of Michael’s wife some years earlier. Still the quiet patriarch soldiers on, working idly as a woodshop teacher and doing his best to maintain strained relationships with his adolescent daughter and young son.
But Michael is haunted by strange sounds and vague images that come by night or in dreams. Despite an obvious grieving for his wife, the ghosts he sees instead sometimes resemble his elderly father-in-law, who sits neglected in a nursing home just this side of the grave.
Michael also volunteers at an annual literary festival hosted in Cobh and when the current year’s fest rolls around he finds himself face-to-face with two larger-than-life literary talents. First there’s the obnoxious celebrity author Nicholas Holden, played to despicable perfection by Aiden Quinn. Nicholas detests his fans, revels in the arrogance brought on by fame, and can’t stand a bottle of wine that falls short of his exacting standards.
While doing his best to keep Nicholas placated, Michael also meets Lena Morelle. Lena is a thoughtful, attractive writes of horror fiction who once had a regrettable tryst with Nicholas, who attaches himself to her like a stray puppy and talks of leaving his wife to form a literary power couple.
Michael and Lena grow closer when he shares his own real-life ghost stories with her and reveals his long-ago deferred dream of being a writer. But as Lena attempts to help Michael reconcile his grief and figure out who’s haunting him and why, Nicholas goes down a jealous spiral and threatens to take Michael, Lena, and the whole town with him.
In some ways “The Eclipse” follows a prototypical ghost story pattern. There’s a spooky old house, the images of lost love, and an extraordinarily evocative environment. Shot on location in Cobh, the Irish seaside becomes a place where the mist rolling in can appear beautiful or ominous, depending on the eye of the beholder.
What sets the film apart from the pack is the performance by Ciarán Hinds. He endows Michael with an understated dignity that both facilitates his duties as a single parent but also makes it impossible for him to move on as an individual. Some of the best and most painful scenes in the film take place between Michael and his children. The family is clearly united by love and shared loss, but Michael, like a man who has lost his better half, falls short in the nurturing department.
Hinds accomplishes all this with minimal dialogue and a quiet, naturalistic acting style that recalls his cinematic look-alike, the great Anthony Quinn. Interestingly, the character of Michael has a past as an amateur boxer, making him the strong, sensitive type shared by Quinn’s characters in films like “La Strada” and “Requiem for a Heavyweight.”
A handful of additional fine performances come from Iben Hjejle as Lena, Aiden Quinn as Nicholas, and Hannah Lynch in the role of Michael’s daughter, Sarah. The characters inhabit a city that is neither spectacular nor sordid; Cobh combines beautiful architecture and a tranquil waterfront with grey skies and dreary alleyways, all filmed true-to-life under the watchful cinematography of Ivan McCullough.
It would be unfair, if not untruthful, to call “The Eclipse” a horror film. Even the “supernatural thriller” heading doesn’t quite seem to fit. For much of its duration, the film is a very standard drama, which is then punctuated by intense moments of horror as experienced by Michael himself in an instant of restlessness. The effect is shocking and powerful, forcing viewers who may not share in Michael’s grief to at least recognize his immediate pain.
Michael must finally face the truth that his ghosts are his own creations, letting down his guard and relaxing his stoic demeanor for a taste of the sadness that his wife’s death has meant to him all along. He emerges reasonably unscathed and establishes a friendship with Lena that seems destined to lead to professional, and perhaps personal, fulfillment once his wounds have sufficiently healed.
On many occasions “The Eclipse,” although a thoroughly modern film, has the feel of watching a psychological drama from twenty years ago or more. Its simple use of basic elements like acting and storytelling are refreshing in a genre that has become so reliant on surprise endings and special effects. Director McPherson’s accomplishment in seeing through to the heart of his story is barely threatened by the occasional failed joke or awkward moment. For some viewers, particularly those without the patience for old movies, “The Eclipse” may lack excitement or a reason to get emotionally involved, but the well-told story of severed and renewed human connections is laid out plainly for all to see.
Michael Farr – Ciarán Hinds
Lena Morelle – Iben Hjejle
Nicholas Holden – Aidan Quinn
Sarah Farr – Hannah Lynch
Thomas Farr – Eanna Hardwicke
Treasure Entertainment, the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, the Irish Film Board, and Radio Telefís Éireann
Distributed by Magnolia Pictures
Directed by Conor McPherson
Written by Billy Roche and Conor McPhersopn
Producers, Donal Geraghty, Paddy McDonald, Rebecca O’Flanagan, Robert Walpole
Cinematographer, Ivan McCullough
Editor, Emer Reynolds
Casting, Oonagh Kearney
Production Designer, Mark Geraghty