Directed by John Huston. Starring Anjelica Huston, Donal McCann, Helena Carroll, Cathleen Delany, Ingrid Craigie, Rachel Dowling, Dan O’Herlihy, Donal Donnelly 83mins, Club, IFI, Dublin
THE OMENS WERE not altogether positive when, in 1987, John Huston set out to make James Joyce’s most famous short story into a film. That erratic director had struggled with great writers in the past: Moby Dick disappeared up its own blowhole; Under the Volcano flailed around like its drunken protagonist. Moreover, though self-contained in plot, The Dead – comprising just two scenes – is very much an integral part of the pristine clockwork that ticks Dubliners, the collection of short stories, along.
Against the odds, the picture, Huston’s last, turned out to be something of a triumph. Donal McCann is both steady and fragile as Gabriel Conroy; Angelica Huston, the director’s daughter, is majestic and dangerous as his wife, Gretta. Over the course of a dance and dinner taking place on, significantly, the Feast of the Epiphany Gabriel learns certain truths about Gretta and faces up to other personal inadequacies.
Tony Huston, John’s son, delivered a pretty faithful adaptation of the story. Indeed, towards the close, in an unheralded admission of defeat, he allows the famous, final passage to be spoken in voiceover. But the film somehow avoids the mothballing effects of the reverential kowtow and finds its own clammy cinematic energy. Huston allows the chatter to steadily accumulate as Fred Murphy’s camera wallows in the interior murk. Both images and words suggest that some quiet disaster is looming. As in Time Regained, Raoul Ruiz’s take on Proust, the camera seemed scored to the heavy rhythms of the prose.
The Dead, perhaps inevitably, feels like more of a gorgeous chamber piece than a major masterpiece. Nobody is likely to confuse it with grand Huston adaptations such as The Red Badge of Courage or The Man Who Would be King. But it remains the best translation of Joyce to film we have – or are ever likely to have.
Welcome its annual unearthing for Bloomsday. Souvenir “I Heart Ulysses” tea towels will be available in the gift shop.