Strong performances anchor The Eclipse's mysteries
FILM Conor McPherson's The Eclipse is not to be confused with that imminent third Twilight movie of (almost) the same name. But it, too, is a supernatural romance of sorts. Michael Farr (Ciarán Hinds) is a widower with two kids. From the wife's post-chemo look in family photos scattered around the house, we glean she died of cancer. He once had writerly ambitions but is now a woodworking teacher. Since school's out, he's jobbing as a driver for the annual literary festival in their seaside town of Cobh, a County Cork location not far from where Irish revolutionary hero Michael Collins was born and killed.
It's a driver's task in such circumstances to take the bad with the good, as far as chauffeuring around celebrity authors goes. The good being London guest Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle), a modest, attractive, and gracious scribe of purportedly nonfiction ghost stories. The bad being best-selling American novelist Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn), who hits the ground whining — his ride's slight delay has forced him to endure the hotel-bar enthusiasms of actual fans, a prime target for his all-embracing condescension — and whose subsequent emotional displays run the unctuous to the apoplectic.
Excepting, that is, when he's attempting to charm Lena, with whom he had a recent one-night-stand at a similar event. Cornered over lunch, Lena keeps a polite arm's length from his renewed ardor, reminding him "I thought we were going to behave like nothing ever happened." He is, after all, married. Nicholas rather too readily pipes that he doesn't love his wife, and, anyway, even if they're still officially together (he fibbed about that previously), he "never felt more separated" from her than when experiencing brief, torrid, probably drunken passion with Lena.
This is none of Michael's business, and Lena wishes it wasn't hers, but circumstances keep driver and guests colliding. Michael tours Lena around to all the terribly quaint and picturesque local sights, bonding over shared experiences (notably, both are under the strong impression that they've seen ghosts) and mutual frisson. Rubbing each the wrong way, meanwhile, is every ensuing encounter with Nicholas, who starts showing up plastered at Lena's accommodations to howl at the moon and/or picks fight with Michael, whom he sneeringly calls "that stalker" — the others being too polite to point out his obvious hypocrisy.
So far, so good: The Eclipse's bulk mixes deft satire of literary ego and salesmanship with middle-aged romance in a travelogue setting (beautifully photographed by Ivan McCullough), plus enough domestic nuance to remind that no family life is perfect when a spouse and parent has recently died. But McPherson, better known here for his widely produced plays (The Weir, Shining City, The Seafarer), is not one to leave reality well enough alone. Instead he (helped by the abrupt crescendos of alarm in Fionnuala Ni Chiosain's score) jars us with elements of the macabre. Michael is burdened with an angry, ailing father-in-law (Jim Norton) he's turned over to a rest home. Perhaps as punishment, he suffers visions of a ghastly specter that look a whole lot like a zombiefied Jim Norton. These are, hopefully, just nightmares. But what do they mean?
It's to McPherson's credit (coadapting a short story by fellow Irish playwright Billy Roche) that his elegantly controlled movie gets away with not quite providing an answer while juggling a lot of mismatched elements with deceptive ease. In a less quirky film, Hinds, atypically cast as the nice guy (he played an arrogant literary prick himself in 2008's Margot at the Wedding), would have swapped roles with Quinn. The gambit benefits them both, especially Quinn, who is terrific as the kind of tantrum-prone pretentious blowhard who'll never be a grownup, but is just talented enough to get away with it — commercially if not socially. The Eclipse barely seems to have gotten going before it's over, and no movie post-1970 should be ever allowed to end on a freeze-frame. Still, these 88 minutes are like some heavy (green of course) liqueur; just a thimbleful leaves you agreeably off-center, flushed, and a little spooked.
THE ECLIPSE opens Fri/16 in San Francisco.