If ever a play didn't want to be opened up, it is "Dancing at Lughnasa," Brian Friel's extraordinary exploration of the power of ancestry, ritual and primal release that became a hit on Broadway in 1991.
On stage, much of the story's power derives from its claustrophobic context, the binds of which are finally burst in a paroxysm of energy and almost erotic celebration. We see the climax on screen, but with none of the stifling build-up, which makes the movie version a tame, if well-acted, domestic drama.
Filmgoers who haven't seen the original play may well admire "Dancing at Lughnasa" for the good acting of its ensemble cast, its attractive Irish setting and its tender coming-of-age tale. But anyone lucky enough to have been hit in the solar plexus by the stage production will no doubt find its screen version disappointingly tame.
Set in the Irish countryside of 1936, "Dancing at Lughnasa" concerns itself with the five Mundy sisters, who live together in the family croft, or farmhouse, under a snug blanket of sisterly love and Catholic devotion. There's the ruddily maternal Maggie (Kathy Burke), the lamb-like Agnes (Brid Brennan), the sweet-natured but slightly addled Rose (Sophie Thompson) and Christina (Catherine McCormack), who is raising her 8-year-old son with the help of her sisters. Riding herd on them all with stentorian piety is Kate (Meryl Streep), an imperious schoolteacher who brooks no nonsense, fuzzy romanticism or un-churchy behavior.
Told through the eyes of Michael (Darrell Jonston), Christina's son, the story of "Dancing at Lughnasa" centers on a particular summer, when the women's brother, a Catholic missionary named Jack (Michael Gambon), returns from Africa to the family hearth.
He is a man much changed; indeed he seems to have gone a bit native, with his tribal masks and obvious familiarity with the rituals they represent. Not only has Jack returned, but so has Michael's father, Gerry (Rhys Ifans), a charming bounder who is soon off to join the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.
The Mundy sisters react to the presence of the two men with a mixture of curiosity and excitement, even as Kate casts a gimlet eye on the lot of them. By the time summer turns to fall, the lives that fill up the tiny croft will be irrevocably changed, the past swallowed by a fast-encroaching future.
"Dancing at Lughnasa" derives its title from an Irish festival celebrating the harvest deity of music and light. In the play, Friel used the festival, as well as the tribal customs Jack brings back from Africa, to examine how Catholicism combines and combusts with deeper primordial impulses to animate the Irish spirit.
But the frictional energy that should make "Dancing at Lughnasa" so much more than just another Irish heart-warmer dissipates in Pat O'Connor's safe, picturesque realization.
Setting several scenes in the lush Irish countryside, and enlisting a composer best known for his work on "Riverdance" to write the score, his "Dancing at Lughnasa" is closer to such tourist-board adverts as "Waking Ned Devine" than Friel's mystical, exhilarating, occasionally terrifying vision.
Enjoy the trip and the good actors at work in "Dancing at Lughnasa," but know that buried beneath this cosmeticized entertainment lies art of transcendent power.
'Dancing at Lughnasa'
Starring Meryl Streep, Michael Gambon, Catherine McCormack, Kathy Burke, Sophie Thompson, Brid Brennan, Rhys Ifans
Directed by Pat O'Connor
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
Rated PG (mild language and thematic elements)
Running time: 92 minutes
Sun score: * * 1/2
Pub Date: 2/05/99