John Huston’s last film is a labor of love at several levels: an adaptation of perhaps one of the greatest pieces of English-language literature by one of Huston’s favorite authors, James Joyce; a love letter to the land of his ancestors and the country where his children grew up; and the chance to work with his screenwriter son Tony and his actress daughter Anjelica. The film is delicate and unhurried, detailing a Christmas dinner at the house of two spinster musician sisters and their niece in turn-of-the-century Ireland, attended by friends and family. Among the visiting attendees are the sisters’ nephew Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta. The evening’s reminiscences bring up melancholy memories for Gretta concerning her first, long-lost love when she was a girl in rural Galway. Her recounting of this tragic love to Gabriel brings him to an epiphany: he learns the difference between mere existence and living. The all-Irish cast and careful period detail give the piece richness and gravity, and Donal McCann and Anjelica Huston are unforgettable as the Conroys.
John Huston devoted the better part of his career to a sort of intelligent second-degree cinema predicated on the adaptation of literary works–a practice informed by crafty casting and fluid storytelling, but often limited by the fact that his attraction to heavyweights (The Maltese Falcon, The Red Badge of Courage, Moby-Dick, “The Man Who Would Be King,” Wise Blood, and Under the Volcano, among others) guaranteed “faithful” reductions at best. His last film (1987), which adapts the final story in James Joyce’s Dubliners, represents the apotheosis of this position–isolating the story from the rest of Dubliners (which gives it much of its resonance) and most of its perfectly composed language, and then doing his best with what remains. Scripted by his son Tony and starring his daughter Anjelica, the film hews to the original plot and much of the dialogue. The results are leagues ahead of Joseph Strick’s unfortunate Joyce adaptations, but inevitably leagues behind the original story. That said, the film’s concentrated simplicity and purity achieve a kind of perfection. The uniformly superb cast includes Donal Donnelly, Cathleen Delany, Helena Carroll, Ingrid Craigie, Frank Patterson, Dan O’Herlihy, and Donal McCann as Gabriel Conroy; the lilting Irish flavor is virtually decanted, and Fred Murphy’s gliding camera movements are delicately executed. There’s also a rather awesome and unpretentious directness as well as calmness about the way that Huston contemplates his own rapidly approaching death.
Subtitles:English + Spanish srt