Sunday 4 August 2019

1,001 Films: "The Dead" (1987)

The NFT's John Huston retrospective draws to a close with a reissue of the director's 1987 swansong The Dead, an adaptation of James Joyce's short story, set in 1904 around the annual gathering of Dublin's well-to-do at the home of three sisters. Cracks are beginning to show in the social veneer: one guest copes with the event by getting tipsy, another leaves before dinner to hear the radical speaker James Connolly, and - as is evident from the looks on their faces during a recitation of the poem "Broken Vows" - all is not quite well in the marriage of society lady Gretta (Anjelica Huston) and husband Gabriel (Donal McCann), a journalist who's perceived as a sellout for writing for "that English rag", the Express. Everything is revealed in the final act's monologues, which speak of solitude in the face of the evening's surface bonhomie. Though far livelier than you'd expect from a period drama where the action is limited to a couple of twirls around the parlour and a walk to the dining room, it's clear this isn't the pugnacious Huston who made The Asphalt Jungle and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. A sense of finality sits over The Dead from its title onwards: it's a last grasp at literary respectability, perhaps, from a creative who'd previously dabbled in pulp (The Maltese Falcon, Beat the Devil, Casino Royale) and more grandiose fictions (Moby Dick, The Bible), or Huston's attempt to reconnect with his Irish roots. However you approach it, it stands as one of the more successful adaptations of Joyce's prose for the screen: a melancholy, haunting and very fine send-off.

(Sunday Telegraph, December 2006)

The Dead is not currently available in the UK.

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