The Dead

Film based on the story by James Joyce:

The Dead (1987)
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Director John Huston; writer Tony Huston; featuring Anjelica Huston, Donal MCann, Colm Meany, Dan O'Herlihy

The Dead

COMMENTARY | MOVIES

The Dead photo

Angelica Huston's character has a secret her husband discovers on a winter's night.

Once we knew passion

A James Joyce story may seem a strange choice for famed director John Huston to adapt for the screen. Huston is best known for his great tough-guy American films, including The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. "The Dead", the story that concludes Joyce's Dubliners collection, is a sensitive, very Irish story in which nothing much happens in the way of action. In fact, part of the story's point is the lack of passion in the relationship between the lead couple.

But Huston chose this material for what he probably knew would be his last film. By all accounts The Dead was a labour of love for him. Huston was proud of his own Irish heritage and made the film, about a family and friends at Christmas, into his own family affair, working with his screenwriting son Tony Huston and acting daughter Angelica Huston. Moreover, the story is closer to Huston material than might first be apparent. His films had always been more about the relationships between the characters than about the "action".

And the lack of passion in this story is highlighted by the contrast with the wife's memory of a most passionate episode in her past. The need to live life to the fullest, which is in all Huston's work, is very much a part of "The Dead", albeit suppressed.

It must have been tempting to play most of the story then as a dull affair, with the characters gathered for the holiday presented as superficial twits, as the living dead, to set off the enlivening affair at the end. But Huston Jr. the writer and Huston Sr. the director present the occasion so delightfully and engage us so thoroughly in the various characters that, as in the story, we accept the pleasant experience as it is.

Then when the deeper malaise is revealed, it hits us all the harder. No one is to blame. There are no nasty soul-destroyers at work, as might be found in Dickens's stories, for instance. Through no fault of any one person, there is only this aching human need not being met.

The all-Irish cast is incredible. (Even the American-born Angelica, who plays Gretta Conroy, was raised in Ireland.) Donal McCann, a veteran actor little known outside the U.K., is quietly brilliant as the dependable husband Gabriel Conroy who realizes too late what he's missed. All the supporting characters are perfect, displaying the kind of acting that never seems a display at all. The audience joins the festive gathering along with their uncles and aunts and good friends.

Throughout the festivities we get hints of something darker behind it all, but along with the film's characters we brush it aside and call for more song and conviviality. Until the revels are ended and we are stranded alone in the dark watching the snow fall over the world.

The film has generally been hailed as a masterpiece but a minority has dissented that it is too literal and adaptation, too theatrical a production—which should not bother fans of the story, or of great writing anywhere.

The Dead was nominated for two Academy Awards, including one for writing, which it should have won.

— Eric

COMMENTARY | MOVIES

Related:

Author
James Joyce

Stories
Dubliners

Novel
Ulysses

Movies
Ulysses

The Dead DVD
The Dead (1987, DVD)
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See also:

Novella
Death in Venice

Movies
Death in Venice

Author
Thomas Mann

Dubliners cover
Dubliners
Get at Amazon: USCanUK

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Ulysses
Get at Amazon: USCanUK