Any English major will tell you that James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ is widely agreed by the tweed and chalk dust set to be the single greatest short story ever written. That’s debatable, of course, but it does pack an emotional wallop in its relatively few pages, and God knows Joyce had a way with words.
John Huston’s adaptation of The Dead, his final directorial effort (and 27th adaptation), is a family affair. It stars his daughter Angelica and was adapted by his son Tony. One can only imagine the dynamic on set with the old guy attached to an oxygen tank, his health failing as he tried to make it through the shoot.
It couldn’t have been easy. After all, the story itself is at first glance nothing more than the account of a rather bourgeois dinner party in Dublin on January 6, 1904. Two aging sisters, Kate and Julia (Helena Carroll and Cathleen Delany) host a group of arts lovers, including their niece Mary Jane (Ingrid Craigie), their nephew Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann), and his lovely wife Gretta (Angelica Huston). The first hour of the film is simply a record of the dinner party and the post-meal entertainment. There is a bit of poetry, a bit of singing, and finally, a toast by Gabriel to salute the two aunts. The conversation seems light and random, a bit about opera, a bit about monks and religion, a bit about Gabriel’s love of things English.
But as the evening moves along, you feel its focus starting to sharpen on Gabriel and Gretta. Note the comments, note the body language. Just as in the story, it becomes clear that something is weighing very heavily on Gretta’s mind, and it becomes painfully apparent all is not right when one particular song, ‘The Lass of Augrhim,’ moves her to tears.
We’ll find out what that problem is in the film’s second act, in which Gabriel and Gretta travel through the snow (‘falling faintly,’ ‘faintly falling’) to a hotel, where Gretta shares a beautiful but tragic memory with Gabriel that sends him into excruciatingly deep thought and inspires a final gorgeous flood of words about nothing less than the very meaning of life itself.
One can’t stress enough the incredible subtlety with which the notoriously boisterous Huston handles all this. This is the guy who directed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen after all. Clearly his own impending death made him quiet down and go inward, and that must have made a philosophical project like this irresistible, the perfect coda to a long life. The fact that he could do the work with his son and daughter at his side only makes it more poignant. The Dead is a finely polished jewel and a wonderful way to remember a great director.
Dead to rights.