Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Eclipse (2009)

The theme of being haunted is pervasive in The Eclipse, a beguiling Irish film from director Conor McPherson. It’s likely to be categorized as a horror film—and with good reason—but the hauntings on display here are more than just supernatural. Characters are plagued by memories, grief, romantic encounters, and guilt, and that emotional horror often proves to be just as gripping as the more classic “gotcha” moments, which are few in number but always unexpected and remarkably effective. The result is a horror film in the vein of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant or Repulsion, a story where the terror is borne not out of violence or visceral shocks but out of character, conflict, and emotional stress.

The Eclipse’s main character is Michael Farr (Ciaran Hinds), a wood shop teacher from a stormy village on the Irish coast. Farr has yet to come to terms with the death of his wife a few years earlier, but he busies himself with his two young children and his work at the town’s annual literary festival, where he volunteers as a driver. When the film opens, Farr begins dealing with another kind of specter in the form of his wife’s invalid father (who, by the way, is still alive), whose ghost begins to manifest itself inside his house and in his dreams. He finds the perfect counsel for his problems in Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle), a popular writer of ghost stories who is in town for the literary festival. Their relationship flourishes thanks to their shared experience with the paranormal, but it’s complicated by the presence of Nicholas Holden (Aiden Quinn), a bestselling American writer who claims to be “haunted” by a brief affair he and Lena had months earlier.

Director Conor McPherson’s background is in the theater, but there is nothing stagey or stuffy about The Eclipse. Playwrights have a tendency to attempt to accomplish too much through dialogue, but McPherson’s approach is nothing if not uniquely cinematic. He lets his exposition build through small character actions and sly uses of set design, and his camerawork is entrancing, full of luxurious tracking shots and morbid framing that often recall Kubrick’s The Shining. The film’s moments of pure horror are few and far between, but when they come they are genuinely terrifying, thanks in no small part to some chillingly effective sound design. Still, McPherson’s boldest stylistic choice is the way he refuses to conform to any kind of traditional generic construct. He has a very particular story he’s trying to tell (specifically, the ways in which people choose to confront and move past grief) and he has no reservations about using everything from drama, horror, romance, and even slapstick comedy in order to get at it.

McPherson’s cause is no doubt helped by the exquisite trio of actors he has at the center of the film. Hjejle and Quinn are both wonderful, especially Quinn, who is clearly having a great time playing the pompous Holden. He’s a character we’d love to hate, but Quinn brings an emotional truth to the role that complicates any easy conclusions we might like to form about the kind of man he is. Still, this film ultimately belongs to Hinds, the wonderful Irish character actor who is a reassuring presence in any movie in which he appears. He’s an intimidating figure, but he brings a gentleness to Farr that is completely disarming, and this helps him succeed in gaining the audience’s trust right from the start. Any time you have a horror film with a genuine emotional core, it’s easy for the attempts at suspense to feel out of place, or worse yet, to cheapen the drama. But Hinds is so believable and so genuine that his performance manages to heighten everything around him.

At scarcely an hour and thirty minutes long, The Eclipse doesn’t waste a single scene. Its emphasis on character over plot is likely to lose some viewers, but those who are able to adjust to the story’s peculiar rhythms will be entranced. It’s structured like a great short story in the way that its characters, themes, and style are all so expertly intertwined. But at the same time there is a distinctly mysterious, evasive quality to the ideas it presents (like the provocative notion of a person’s ghost appearing prior to their death), which only seems to grow in complexity and meaning after the story is over. You’re not likely to be able to get The Eclipse out of your head easily—it’s the kind of film that will haunt you.