The Dead – A Movie Review

The Dead is the film adaptation of a James Joyce short story of the same name that is part of the “Dubliners” collection.  It was the last picture directed by John Huston and was made shortly before he died.  It starred his daughter Angelica Huston and a cast of Irish actors who are mostly unknown to American audiences.  It’s the story of a New Year’s Party in Ireland in 1904.  The protagonists are a husband and wife, Gabriel and Greta, visiting his aunts for the party.  There are a number of characters who interact and exhibit the various foibles and characteristics found in a gathering of middle-class city dwellers.  There is the drunkard and the old maids and the young women and men full of excitement about the cultural and political happenings.  Music is a big part of the story with opera arias and piano concertos along the course of the party.  But at last the story is a meditation on the transitory nature of life.  Because it is an Irish story and specifically because it is James Joyce story it is very melancholy.  But there is humor and the portrayal of the party is an amusing period piece of turn of the twentieth century Ireland.  There is a number of mentions of the Irish Republican Army meetings plotting the coming uprising and the story is full of allusions to the Roman Catholic religion and the changing mores of the times.

But in the end, as the summation of the story, we see an intellectual coming to terms with the visceral nature of life.  He feels that he’s never touched his wife’s heart the way the death of a childhood sweetheart did many years ago.

John Huston was a very sick old man when he made this film and the concept of mortality was of prime importance to him.  And the James Joyce story is a good one.  But I wonder how big the audience is for this movie.  It’s a period piece and all the humor is mild and subdued.  It’s highly sentimental and slow paced.  I enjoy it a great deal and like it as a good end of year picture.  But I would recommend prospective viewers consider in advance if they care for such tame and sad entertainment.  I recommend this movie for the philosophic spirits out there.

2 thoughts on “The Dead – A Movie Review

  • December 26, 2018 at 8:06 am
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    Of course, following the novella’s humorous description of the mundanities and mediocrities of fin de siècle Dublin ‘society’, his protagonists’s reflection on his marriage and the death of his wife’s teenage beau, Michael Fury, Joyce end’s with what is commonly considered the finest prose poem in the language. What miraculous is that somehow Houston’s son got the script adaptation right, even, dare we say, enhanced it with haunting visuals of the ‘mutinous Shannon’ and Michael’s lonely graveyard gate.

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    • December 26, 2018 at 8:27 am
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      Personally I think it is a very fine movie made from an excellent story. I only wonder whether in 2018 the very small audience with the appreciation for those qualities has now shrunk down to a handful. But Huston’s achievement should be praised regardless of whether anyone reads it or not. I owe it to him for the honest emotion that his story inspires. And as you grow older and the consequences of mortality become ubiquitous reading this or seeing it portrayed in a civilized way is uplifting in a melancholy way.

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