Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Process of Mourning: Conor McPherson's The Eclipse (2010)

Iben Hjejle and Ciarán Hinds in The Eclipse 

A few months before my Dad passed away last year, he was in the hospital recovering from a serious infection. On strong painkillers, he kept telling my sister to let “Uncle Maurice know” about something which I don't quite recall. Shortly after, he said something about 'seeing' Uncle Maurice. Uncle Maurice is my Mom's brother, and my father and he had a long, somewhat difficult, relationship. So why, while hallucinating from the painkillers, did he think he saw, or needed to tell Uncle Maurice something (whom he hadn't seen in about seven years)? We had no idea. A handful of days later, I received a phone call that my Uncle had died suddenly. I have always believed that certain people are 'visited,' shall we say, by those who are about to die, or have just passed. Why, nobody can tell, but it seems to happen again and again. This is the one of the ideas percolating in Conor McPherson's fine, neglected/ignored 2010 Irish film, The Eclipse.

In the small, southern coastal town of Cobh, Ireland, the annual literary festival is about to begin. The town may be small, but the festival has a good reputation and manages to attract up-and-coming and famous authors from all over the western world. Citizens of the town, such as Michael Farr (Ciarán Hinds of Rome and Munich), volunteer as drivers and assistants for the attending writers. A couple of years prior to the events of the film, Farr's wife, Eleanor, died of cancer, leaving him a widower with two almost-teenaged children. The day before events are to begin, Farr is awakened in the middle of the night by a noise. As he moves around his dark home, he thinks he sees 'something.' An apparition? A housebreaker? It is unclear. The next day, he is assigned to act as a driver for two writers: one American, Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn), and one British-Scandinavian, Lena Morrell (Iben Hjejle). Holden is the famous, loud-mouthed, drunken, womanizing popularist; Morrell is the up-and-coming author of humanist supernatural stories.

Ciarán Hinds in The Eclipse
Holden and Morrell had a brief fling at a previous festival, and Holden has convinced Morrell to come to this one to rekindle things. On their previous encounter, Holden had lied to her about he and his wife being separated. When Morrell uncovers this lie now, she refuses to have anything more to do with him, storms out, and asks Farr to drive her to her temporary residents. They talk on the long drive and ferry ride and a bond begins to form. Farr is still mourning the loss of his wife and is unable to move forward due to the grief. Morrell writes about ghosts, and since he thinks he's seeing one, he grows closer to her. Farr is still duty-bound to his father-in-law, a sad old man living in a retirement home who blames Farr for his daughter's death. During the long drive back from dropping off Morrell, Farr has a vision of his father-in-law, dead, snarling at him from the passenger seat. Farr crashes the car and is shaken but unharmed. Spooked by this encounter, the next time he sees Morrell (who is still being actively pursued by the rejected Holden), he relates the story. You can probably guess what soon happens to the father-in-law.

 I don't want to say any more for fear of spoiling this wonderfully acted character piece, so let's just say The Eclipse is about Farr coming to terms with his loss (and the ghosts in his life). Throughout the film, he takes the first tentative steps to continuing on in his life and being able to be there for both his young children and himself. Hinds is a wonderful actor who rarely gets to do a lead role. Here, the layers of grief hang over him, but not as something you want to get away from, but instead like something you want to help him work through. He is an absolute pleasure from beginning to end. Hinds has a moment of revelation near that end that will break the hardest of hearts. Hjejle, unknown to me, is a fine actress with an open face and a manner a man like Farr (and, yes, even the loathsome Holden) would find appealing. The only weak link here is Quinn, and it's not his acting, which is fine. It is a thankless job playing an irredeemable jerk, and Quinn does what he can, but he's a boorish cliché that thankfully does nothing to sink this delicate, truly rich movie. The film should be searched out. It didn't make a dime upon its release last year, but it is one to discover.

There is another layer, for me personally, where this film works. I, too, am still going through the mourning process of the loss of my father. When he died in October last year, I managed to get through the week of the funeral pretty well. I missed him terribly, but the mourning process didn't kick in. It is only in the weeks and months since that I've been able to come to terms with my own feelings about his passing. Since I'm a reader, music lover and a viewer, it stands to reason that the books I'm reading, the songs I'm hearing, or movies/TV shows I'm watching can at unexpected moments strike a cord and help me mourn.

Holloway & Mitchell - Lost

Fine films such as The Eclipse have helped, but so have other works that aren't nearly as nuanced. A few weeks back, I picked up the last season of Lost on DVD. As I said here, I liked the last season after having trouble with many of the previous ones. I was particularly touched by the finale, where the 'flash sideways' were revealed to be a holding area (limbo, if you will) of all those who had lived on the island. Not until the last of them had either died, or come to terms with their death, could they all move on together to whatever awaited them beyond. (The ending beautifully undercut the constant refrain heard throughout the show: “Live together; die alone.” With this ending, they got to live and die together.) Some people found it corny, but when I watched it last May, I found it quite heartfelt. So, two or three weeks ago, I re-watched the last episode. In the flash sideways, nobody knows each other and only through Desmond's intervention (Henry Ian Cusick) are they awakened to their other lives and what awaits them beyond. Many of these re-encounters I found extremely moving. One in particular undid me. On the island, Juliet and Sawyer (Elizabeth Mitchell and Josh Holloway) had finally found love with each other. Tragically, Juliet had fallen to her death after her hand slipped out of Sawyer's. In the flash sideways, they are finally awakened to each other during an encounter in a hospital. As Sawyer and Juliet reconnect and realize who the other is, Sawyer takes her tenderly in his arms and says “I've got you,” the very words he never got to say to her when she slipped from his grasp on the island.

In life, we don't often get to say those things. After a nice visit in May last year (my parents live in Kelowna, British Columbia; I live in Toronto, Ontario), I never saw my father alive again. In fact, I never spoke to him because it was nearly impossible to talk on the phone due to his profound deafness (he'd damaged his hearing during training firing the big guns on ships during World War II). Less than a month later, he fell and broke his hip and went into the decline that finally took his life. Don't get me wrong. Dad lived to 87 and had a good long life, but it still hurt when he went.

Through this encounter between Juliet and Sawyer on Lost, I was able to 'hold on to my father' one more time in a metaphorical, if not literal sense. The penultimate scene in the show also undid me. It was more literal, in that it was a moving encounter between Jack and his long-dead father. That final encounter between father and son was hugely cathartic for me. For these and other reasons, I will always think fondly of the final season of Lost as it helped me come to terms with my father's passing. But it wasn't over (and probably still isn't).

Stevie Nicks
About three weeks ago, my wife and I went to the Rod Stewart/Stevie Nicks concert at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. It was a hugely entertaining concert and I had no complaints. It probably wasn't one for the ages by any stretch, except for two songs that Nicks sang in the middle of her opening set. Prior to these two songs, Nicks looked like she was really going through the motions. Her voice sounded like Marianne Faithful's, circa Broken English, and she moved about as dynamically as Van Morrison does at a concert (meaning barely), or Ozzy Osbourne (slowly). But then she hit the Fleetwood Mac hit, “Rhiannon.” Re-orchestrated to start with just her voice and piano, the song gradually became the track we know. It was a fantastic performance and set the stage for the next song, “Landslide.” Now, I actually know this song better as a good Dixie Chicks’ song than one by Fleetwood Mac, so I wasn't prepared for what came next. As a tribute to her own deceased father, Nicks sang the song with images projected behind her of her own life with her father. The final shot was him waving from a motorized scooter. The lyrics that hit me like a ton of bricks? “What is love?/Can the child within my heart rise above?/Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?/Can I handle the seasons of my life?” What she sang about on that night, combined with the images, is completely universal for any adult as we face the passing of our parents. In those two songs, Nicks' concert went from a going-through-the motions exercise to, for me at least, another step in the process of mourning. Stewart's turn was fun and frothy, the perfect chaser for the cathartic moment.

The Eclipse is the latest chapter in the continuing process. Art doesn't have to be high, middle or low to offer someone a helping hand as they travel through the rough roads of mourning and loss. As these three works show, they are often all three. Okay, none of these are low art, but maybe a sublime idiotic comedy like Dumb and Dumber, or something I'm not expecting, will offer me the next insight.

David Churchill is a film critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information.

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