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1 October 1998 Edition

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Dancing from stage to screen

Dancing at Lughnasa
The Spanish Prisoner
Mercury Rising

Brian Friel's play, Dancing at Lughnasa, opened in Dublin in 1990 and was a theatrical triumph, both in Ireland and on Broadway. It tells the story of the five unmarried Mundy sisters who live together in a house in Donegal in the changing world of the 1930s.

The eldest sister, Kate (Meryl Streep), rules the house with a strict concern but finds herself adrift when her teaching job is threatened and a new knitting factory spells the end for the small income earned by Agnes (Brid Brennan) and Rose (Sophie Thompson). The household can't survive without money.

From a child's eye a voiceover from Michael (Darrell Johnston), the illegitimate son of Christina (Catherine McCormack), charts the family's changes over the summer of 1936. His father, a Welsh travelling salesman (Rhys Ifans), visits on his motorbike, adding a dash of fun and danger amid the repressed atmosphere presided over by Kate.

The sisters' brother, Father Jack (Michael Gambon), returns from the African missions and brings with him an African view of life which is a challenge to the repressed Irish attitudes.

The climax of the film, as with the play, is when the sisters respond to a tune on the radio and begin to dance, building with a carefree, wild abandon until they end up in the front yard wheeling and laughing as the music builds. It celebrates their bond and it is a physical, emotional response to the changing world which is going to shatter their lives.

Film cannot simply reproduce a play and Frank McGuinness has written a screenplay which admirably extends the play to fit a new medium. But it doesn't quite work. For example, the dancing scene exudes power on the confined space of a stage and cannot hope to recapture that on the screen.

Moreover, the complexity of relationships in the household is only touched upon and I came away wishing for a longer, more densely layered film.

The casting of Meryl Streep in the lead role owes more to the need to secure US funding than to any artistic reason. She is adequate but not inspirational. Her accent is passably Irish but not Donegal (it is better that Kathy Burke's barely subdued Cockney twang). Other performances are excellent, notably Brid Brennan, Sophie Thompson and Michael Gambon.

It is a film worth seeing but not a classic.

By Brian Campbell

The Spanish Prisoner, written and directed by David Mamet, is a complex and gripping but emotionally cold thriller. The movie stars Scott Campbell as Joe Ross, an economist who has discovered an elaborate formula that will enable the company he works for to dominate the global market and reap unprecedented profits. Naturally, such a formula is much sought after, and secrecy and paranoia are evident from the outset.

Ross is insecure because the company has yet to place a value on his services, and this anxiety proves to be his undoing.

The movie centres on his travails, as he is duped time and again, not knowing until the movie's surprise ending exactly who is with him and who is out to get him.

A talented supporting cast, including Ben Gazzara and a convincingly straight Steve Martin, help sell this engaging feature-length con trick thriller, but Mamet, while succeeding in giving a sinister edge to all his characters, never fosters sufficient audience empathy, even with his main protagonist, to make us really care whether or not he emerges from his nightmare.

By Martin Spain

The latest action vehicle for Bruce Willis, Mercury Rising, is competent but uninspired, playing like a cross between Witness and Rainman.

Willis is FBI agent Art Jeffries, disillusioned and reduced to donkey work after an undercover operation goes wrong, who is called out to search for an autistic nine-year-old boy, Simon, played by Miko Hughes, whose parents have just been discovered shot dead.

The parents are dead, however, because the boy has, incredibly but unwittingly, managed to crack a top secret U.S. military code that was thought to be impregnable. The bulk of the movie centres on Willis's developing relationship with Simon as he tries to communicate with him and keep him alive. Alec Baldwin is wasted in a sadly two-dimensional role as the National Security Agency chief who is willing to kill to protect his code, and although there is plenty of action and the child generates some empathy, the conclusion is predictable, there is an overall lack of innovation throughout. At times during Mercury Rising, Willis has trouble gaining the attention of his young charge. This reviewer had similar difficulties.

By Martin Spain

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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