The Dead (1987)

Director John Huston may have been close to dying when he made this movie, but apparently no one else was going to film James Joyce’s most famous short story and make it an indelibly mournful, old-world Christmas experience. Two spinster aunts host a Christmas dinner in turn-of-the-century Dublin, when ladies wore long skirts and high lace collars and guests entertained each other with stories, songs, and dances. Outside, horse-drawn carriages glide gently through the snow; inside, the holiday feast is an occasion to discuss scandals and politics before setting aflame the Christmas pudding. That is, before a plaintive singing of a sad Irish ballad, when suddenly the past returns, the present begins to decay, and the season’s marking of time and age inspires a deep and universal melancholy. Something of a family affair (Huston’s son Tony wrote the ingeniously expanded screenplay, and daughter Angelica stars as the wife with a secret story), this dreamy adaptation refuses to be hurried, and Joyce’s prose (narrated by Donal McCann, as the husband) is surpassingly eloquent. With logs for the fire and a toast in hand, it’s a salve for those hungering for a more literate, and subtly powerful, holiday film.


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