The bleating of lambs mournful and lost, echoes from the past whose whisper speaks of the grave, where all love dies. Director John Huston’s swan song is an epiphany of cinematic delight haunted by mortality and the voices of the dead. Adapted from James Joyce novella, Huston captures the quicksilver spirit of Joyce’s prose without padding the story or overextending the tale, diluting its powerful insight: the film is exactly the correct length at 80 minutes.
Huston’s attention to period detail is amazing, as the household, props, makeup, language, and casting are flawless, the silver screen like a window in time. The actors themselves seem imbued with the ghosts of a past time, as if they lived a hundred years ago. Huston allows his camera to slowly wander through the dinner party, eavesdropping on conversations, moving from one person to the next. The dialogue often overlaps and bleeds into other conversations, making the audience participant in the drama. The story is spiced with humor when the drunken Freddy stumbles in, good natured but embarrassingly incoherent. The narrative exposes many different characters but gradually focuses upon George, a man aloof and trapped in thought though we are not privileged to share his isolated thoughts…yet. The dinner party’s conversation ebbs and recedes like a vocal tide, the genial chatter hypnotic while the clinking of silverware on china or an awkward silence becomes an exclamation point.
As George and his wife Gretta prepare to leave the party, she becomes possessed by some ethereal spirit, awakened by the solemn lyricism of a song. Perplexed, George stares at her framed in a wonderful composition before the glowing plate glass window, the vibrant colors surrounding her body like a vision of the Virgin Mary. Later in their room, Gretta is inspired to tell her husband of a young man named Michael Fuery who froze to death proclaiming his love to her many years ago, as the dead still whisper to the living. She cries herself to sleep and George is left confused, starring into the dark night of the soul, realizing that he doesn’t love his wife with such commitment and, in some ways, they are strangers to each other.
As the snow falls over Ireland, truth and fiction collide and George’s lamenting epiphany becomes John Huston’s epitaph.
Final Grade: (A)