The Dead (1987) [Revisited]

I've been meaning to re-watch this for a while. I originally wrote about this back in 2016, and while I'll link to that post, it's not one I'm proud of. Having a "review" up for a critically acclaimed adaptation of a James Joyce story where my take is basically just me whining that I found the movie boring hasn't sat well with me as my appreciation for different kinds of films has expanded. I suspected - correctly, I might add - I'd react differently if I gave the movie another chance.

That said, I agree with at least part of my original sentiment - this one really isn't for everyone. It requires a great deal of attention to follow the large number of characters and their relationships. Multiple viewings are probably the best approach if you're unfamiliar with the source material - at an hour and twenty minutes, that's not too heavy a lift (I watched this twice yesterday, for anyone curious). Even then, the movie and its underlying plot (which by all accounts is virtually identical to the original story) is difficult to interpret. The general themes are clear, but how those reflect on politics and society in Joyce's time, let alone director John Huston's or ours, is difficult to parse.

But I'll get to that. Let's talk premise and story - I'll try and do so in a little more depth than my write-up seven years ago. The movie opens with three women - two aging sisters and their young niece - welcoming guests to their annual Epiphany party. There are a large number of guests, but the most significant are their nephew, Gabriel; his wife, Gretta; the drunk, Freddy, and his mother; and Mr. Browne, a protestant who winds up drunker than Freddy. The hostesses are worried about Freddy's behavior (there have apparently been incidents at past parties) and are ecstatic when Gabriel arrives, as they trust him to manage Freddy. Beyond them, there's an assortment of singers, musicians, and academics from the Dublin musical scene.

The movie makes it fairly clear that Gabriel (played by Donal McCann) is our point-of-view character, albeit an unusual one. He's mostly preoccupied with reviewing a speech he'll be giving at the end of dinner and steals away moments throughout to study his notes. He seems bored with the other guests, though he's generally polite to their faces, preferring to snicker or offer a biting remark behind their backs.

He shares a somewhat more honest relationship with his wife, Gretta (played by Anjelica Huston, the daughter of the director) - they trade friendly barbs to each others' faces. Their relationship is notable in being cordial but not at all warm through the majority of the film. Gretta feels far more alive interacting with the singers at the party. She is almost always at the side of another man. Gabriel, meanwhile, ends up dancing with another woman, who quarrels with him over politics, leading him to admit a growing disdain for his country and its people.

There are a few performances, including a piano performance by the youngest host, a song sung by the eldest (whose skill has clearly waned), and a poem recited by a guest. Dominant themes in both the performances and in conversations are longing for youth, mourning for lost times and people, and an acknowledgment that death is inevitable. In addition, we get a few playful moments, such as when one of the hostesses comically attempts to assert her commitment to Catholicism while simultaneously ranting against the Pope's sexist policies (my favorite moment in the movie, courtesy of actress Helena Carroll).

Eventually, they all eat together, during which Freddy and Mr. Browne have a short but a heated exchange. Gabriel finally delivers his speech, which is essentially a prolonged toast to the three hostesses and Irish hospitality in general. I'm not entirely sure how to read this moment. The movie's told us clearly Gabriel is tired of the country these women seem to represent, and there's an underlying sense of irony to much of what he's saying. But at the same time, the camera frames the oldest of the three women with a great deal of sympathy - she's overwhelmed by emotion, which seems to be the film's commodity for assigning worth to its characters. It comes off as at once sarcastic and sincere - perhaps the implication is it's supposed to be both.

Regardless, the party begins winding down soon after. Characters leave until only a few remain. As Gabriel is getting his boots on, he sees his wife descending the stairs. She pauses to listen intently to a singer, and she stands in front of a stained glass window, looking like the Virgin Mary. Gabriel is transfixed as he stares at her.

On the ride to the hotel they're staying at, he tells her a story about a time his grandfather's horse became enamored with a statue, but her thoughts are clearly elsewhere. At the hotel, he pushes her into telling him what's on her mind, and she reveals a part of her life he'd never known about, one prompted by the song she listened to earlier. It's a story of a young man who'd been madly in love with her, to the point he came to see her while sick in the winter and passed away soon after. She breaks down and tears after finishing her story, collapses on the bed, and falls unconscious.

Gabriel, left to muse on all this, looks out the window at the falling snow. In a voiceover apparently taken verbatim from the end of Joyce's story, he reflects on the sense of death that seems to be covering his nation, and regrets never having known the sort of passion that drove the man who loved his wife to an early grave.

Trying to parse this movie for some kind of statement is even more difficult than trying to get the same from Gabriel's speech. The movie presents these characters with very little context, making it difficult to know whether they're deserving of our sympathy or disdain. You can just as easily see them all as victims of circumstance or as self-important figures too obsessed with the past to deal with problems that are, for the most part, generally pretty trivial.

Gabriel's musing at the end can likewise be viewed either as a sincere, profound search for existential purpose or as a pitiable fixation with death. Ultimately, I suspect it's better to view this as a meditation on the topics being explored than as a lesson or treatise. That makes a great deal of sense when you consider the fact the director was dying himself as he made the film. The movie feels like an honest exploration of conflicting emotions and viewpoints surrounding a central theme.

Now then, let's talk Christmas, or more specifically Epiphany. When I first watched this, I assumed the holiday was selected for its symbolic representation of the end of the Christmas holidays, which... yeah, that was likely a factor. But it's also worth noting the holidays also represent a period between years - in some traditions, the new year doesn't really start until after Epiphany. Granted, this was a bit of an antiquated notion when Joyce was writing, but he'd certainly have been familiar with it. And The Dead is nothing if not fascinated with things that are antiquated.

More than that, this may tie into Christmas ghost stories. The holidays have long been considered a time of spirits. There may not be literal ghosts in this story, but it ends with the implication that the titular dead are more alive and present than the actual living characters. Setting this during the holidays could very well be a sort of invocation of those superstitions.

There's also the possible connection between the hostesses and the wise men of Christian mythology who supposedly arrived on Epiphany. Though it occurred to me on this viewing that you could also view the wise men as other characters. For example, three gifts were given to members of the household (Gabriel gave a servant some money, Mr. Browne brought flowers, and one of the students brought some scented soap). Those gifts do bear a resemblance to the gold, incense, and myrrh of legend. Alternatively, the students also appear as a trio - they're the only characters to do so.

It's also worth noting the hostesses at least vaguely resemble maiden-mother-crone iconography when seated together. It wouldn't surprise me if this was intentional on Huston's part.

So, I guess the only questions left are whether I enjoyed this movie and whether I'd recommend it. Neither are going to be any more straightforward than my attempts to explain the film, unfortunately. I certainly enjoyed the performances - Anjelica Huston is particularly fantastic. I found the movie far more interesting on these viewings than when I first watched it, both because I have a better understanding of the history of holiday traditions and a much better appreciation for film. I'm not sure that counts as enjoyment, though I also suspect this wasn't a movie created to be enjoyed so much as reflected on.

As far as whether I'd recommend it... that depends on your background. If you're a fan of Joyce's writing, then it's certainly worth checking out. Really, if you love film or literature (and particularly if you've got an academic background in either of those subjects) this is something you should see. As for general audiences, however, maybe not. This is a movie with a pace so slow it's almost standing still. There's depth to the characters, but very little development or expression. It's a film where nothing really happens and - until the very end - very little of consequence is expressed or revealed.

It asks a great deal of the audience - if you're in a position to meet it on its own terms, it can be a rewarding experience. If not, you're going to feel like you wasted an hour and twenty minutes. That sounds like more of a value statement than I mean it - keep in mind, I've been on both sides of that line in regards to this film.

But it is a movie I expect I'll want to revisit again later in life to see how my opinion transforms then.