In December, I took a break from London assignments to stop by one of the U.K.’s most prestigious arts centers, the National Theatre in South Bank. Actor Ciarán Hinds (Game of Thrones, The Terror) was there wrapping up a successful run of Brian Friel’s modern classic Translations.
Seeing Hinds onstage got me thinking later about one of his independent films called The Eclipse (2009), for which he won the Best Actor Award at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film falls within the earliest years of his work with Irish writer and director Conor McPherson (The Seafarer, The Weir). Their collaboration has remained strong, with recent West End productions such as Girl from the North Country and a new adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.
The Eclipse‘s screenplay was developed by McPherson and Billy Roche, based on the latter’s short story collection, Tales from Rainwater Pond. The film focuses on widower Michael Farr (Ciarán Hinds) during his time as a volunteer at a literary festival in Cobh, County Cork, Ireland. Amid juggling festival duties and looking after his kids (Hannah Lynch and Eanna Hardwicke), Michael is perplexed about strange occurrences at his house.
He wonders if there’s a ghost lurking or if he’s just dreaming. The odd thing is that the apparation takes the form of his father-in-law, Malachy McNeill (Jim Norton), who is very much alive. Malachy is still upset about being moved to a nursing home after the death of Eleanor, his daughter and Michael’s wife. The film seems to suggest that Malachy’s resentment is manifesting as a ghost, especially if the elderly man is close to death. Ghost Malachy definitely scared me and made me jump in my seat when he appeared, but not to worry, it’s not the nightmare-inducing sort of terror.
In addition to horror, this drama includes romance. Michael’s primary festival duty is to look after beautiful writer Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle), the author of a book on ghosts and the supernatural called The Eclipse. Their attempts at connecting over the subject are thwarted by the world-famous and vain author Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn), who wants to revive an affair with Lena.
Over 10 years since its release, the film is still enjoyable to watch. Worth noting are the countryside and city shots of County Cork, Ireland. Massive Cobh Cathedral often looms in the background, calling to mind Ireland’s rich religious history. That building and religious statues enhance the reminders of mourning, death, and the supernatural. Likewise, the countryside can be either picturesque or foreboding. In both types of sequences, the mood is expertly enhanced by the music composed by Fionnuala Ní Chiosáin, with richly layered Latin chants, elegant piano tracks, and discordant piano and string instrumentals.
Don’t rely solely on the musical cues to determine a scene’s tone, because a couple of times it shifts rapidly from comfortable to downright spooky. That’s accomplished through the remarkable cinematography by McPherson and his director of photography, Ivan McCollough. They employ what I would call an active camera, hovering with a nervous energy slightly behind Hinds’ shoulder as he maneuvers through staircases and hallways.
In other frames, there are clever sequences where the camera starts on the reflection of a room’s furniture in a mirror. Sometimes it does a gentle pan sideways to establish the new interior setting. In other instances, the camera diverts from the mirror with a wide arc to the other end of the room where Hinds is. The smart camera work is subtle and seamless, but these little touches are vital in ramping up a scene’s intensity and representing characters’ emotional states.
A moment ago, I mentioned mirrors. They appear in many scenes, and not solely as wall decorations. If you’re not looking carefully enough in one shot, you may not realize you’re seeing the room through a mirror until the camera pans over. In another scene, the camera rests on a blurred reflection of Michael while his daughter Sarah explains that her younger brother ventured out late for snacks. His reflection in the well-lit room remains indistinct as he loses his temper, marking a contrast to his generally level disposition. Treating seemingly innocuous objects in this fashion lends itself well to shaping scenes, whether it’s to throw the viewer off balance or heighten the tension level.
Another impressive visual element is the dramatic play of light and shadow in the framing of various shots. At times, it’s so dark in the foreground that all that’s visible is a silhouette of the character. Silhouettes are employed to great effect in Selskar Abbey when Michael and Lena share a laugh after seeking shelter from the rain. The same lighting occurs later that day in the hospital as Lena decides to wait for Nicholas to be discharged. However, this time Michael and Lena’s dark figures emphasize awkwardness rather than a bonding moment as they converse.
The performances in The Eclipse are excellent across the board. Quinn (Elementary) admirably steers clear of cheesiness in his portrayal of the narcissistic Nicholas. He wins a certain degree of sympathy through his character’s drinking, nocturnal wanderings in the hotel, and efforts to maintain a confident demeanor in public. Quinn’s eyes reveal Nicholas’ nervousness and loss of control even though he’s supposedly in his element, physically surrounded by adoring readers in the hustle and bustle of the festival.
Hjejle (High Fidelity) is memorable as Lena, convincingly capturing the author’s reserved nature in a public reading. She shines in the love triangle, leaving the viewer guessing until the end how it turns out. She transitions within scenes effortlessly through Lena’s empathy for Michael’s situation, sympathy for Nicholas, and an unsuccessful attempt to keep the peace between both men. I really enjoyed Hjejle’s handling of the serious and the humorous moments.
Hinds’ adroitness and depth are apparent in his nuanced portrayal of Michael. He exhibits them remarkably through the emotions in his eyes and facial expressions. Sometimes it’s detachment, when Michael is merely going through the motions of the day; other times it’s the burden of the grief he’s carrying, and his curiously hopeful glances toward Lena.
Perhaps what’s most striking are the bewilderment and fear Hinds exhibits whenever the supernatural elements creep in or suddenly emerge for Michael. It’s pivotal toward the end in what’s undoubtedly the most moving part of the film, when Michael encounters a friendlier apparition (not Malachy) and receives much-needed closure. It would be nice to see Ciarán Hinds cast in more lead roles instead of supporting ones in film and television because he handles the lead parts so well.
The Eclipse is a thoughtful and beautiful narrative about grief and finding the courage to start again. It’s a bonus to see the lovely Irish towns and countryside, which are quite amazing. You should add this supernatural drama to your “must see” list. Of course, I also highly recommend that you make it a point to see Ciarán Hinds onstage in a Conor McPherson production.