The Dead

This 20-year old film based on a James Joyce short story is finally available on DVD.  Directed by John Huston (it was his last film) and starring Anjelica Huston and a cast of little known Irish actors, this accessible story by a famously difficult author is memorably brought to life by a mature director at the height of his powers, who understood the work well enough to keep the scale small.

Joyce wrote this tale of a generous holiday dinner given by elderly maiden ladies in Dublin while he himself was starving in Rome. Joyce evinces an almost unbearable loneliness for the land of his birth, even though he must have known that he could never live in Ireland again. As befits a literary adaptation, this is a movie where nothing very much happens — it is really a series of vignettes. We are given tantalizing glimpses of characters who speak to each other in the shorthand of people who all know each other very well (or think they do). And they are all, to a greater or lesser extent, affected by the ghosts of people they once knew, or the lives they might have had. Not everybody likes this kind of thing (Ted found it deathly dull).  But pay attention — the most important, and moving, scenes in the movie come about 20 minutes before the end, when it looks as though the story is over, and one of the characters is only musing on the weather, “Snow was general all over Ireland.”  It’s a rare occasion when a voiceover of an actor reading from the author’s story actually works.

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