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The Eclipse: Ghostly visits, awkward love and a film that can't find its way

Iben Hjejle and Ciara�n Hinds in The Eclipse.

Magnolia Pictures/Magnolia Pictures

2 out of 4 stars


The Eclipse

  • Directed by Conor McPherson
  • Written by Conor McPherson and Billy Roche
  • Starring Ciarán Hinds and Iben Hjejle
  • Classification: 14A

Movies that are hard to label, that slip through the cracks of the genres to resist any easy definition, are sometimes richly complex and sometimes just plain confused. The Eclipse is a bit of both. Certainly, it's tough to define this picture - the script is not quite a ghost story and not fully a love story but an uneasy amalgam of the two, hardly scary although occasionally, and surprisingly, touching. You can almost see the writers striving to balance the scales, here and there adding a little "super" to the "natural" to bring up the commercial weight. Realism, though, is definitely their preferred home - the film flies highest when it's most down to earth.

The setting itself is a hybrid of the gothic and the genteel. We're in the stone town of Cobh on the craggy Irish coast, but the place is preparing for nothing more ominous than its annual literary festival, and nothing more demonic than the usual influx of writers released from imagination's cave to read their own handiwork, swill another's booze, and make merry with the locals. Among the latter is Michael (Ciarán Hinds), a single father who's running decidedly low on merriment these days. A teacher by day, he's a volunteer driver at the festival, shepherding the scribes to and from events. Doing so, Michael is polite yet very subdued, a large man physically but, emotionally, a broken vessel.

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Soon we find out why. His wife died a few years ago, and he's still grieving. Not only is his sleep troubled, but his waking life is haunted by visions - dark spectres that may just be hallucinations. Cast against his usual menacing type, Hinds underplays the role with a quiet vulnerability that nicely conveys Michael's ambivalence about his condition. The sufferer is embarrassed by these visions, yet they're too palpable to dismiss.

Understandably, then, he's drawn to Lena (Iben Hjejle) a writer of ghostly tales, and she to him. Director Conor McPherson is wise to let this mutual attraction grow only slowly through the pair's intermittent encounters, and their scenes together prove to be the most compelling in the film - the fragile guy, the somewhat erratic woman, two grown-ups with cluttered pasts edging cautiously toward each other. Here, the ghostly stuff recedes and naturalism reigns, poignantly so when Michael laments that his late wife is not one of the ghosts that visits him. In fact, her visual form, her very face, is fading in his memory, and so he clings to his grief all the more tenaciously: "You hang on to the pain because you're afraid if you let it go.… " His voice trails off and in that silence lies the guilt of the bereaved: To stop suffering is to stop remembering.

Far less credible is the trois in the ménage: The star author at the fest, Nicholas (Aidan Quinn) is a married bounder who had a brief fling with Lena and still carries an on-and-off torch for her - on when his wife isn't around, off when she is. Bearded and drunk and prone to punch-ups, he's the literary cliché at the literary festival, careening around the movie like a pale ghost of Hemingway - and that's at least one ghost too many.

Which brings us back to those spectres. Treating them rather gingerly, McPherson errs on the side of caution, suggesting that the things may torment Michael but, for the rest of us, there's nothing to get worked up about. So we don't. Anyone looking for old-fashioned frights will be sorely disappointed.

No doubt, The Eclipse has moments of real intensity, darkly etching grief's lunar landscape. Ultimately, though, it feels fleeting and slight passing across our line of vision, never a full but merely a partial engagement.

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About the Author
Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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