Blending romance, drama and supernatural horror into a truly original, thoroughly unforgettable concoction, "The Eclipse" refuses to tip its hand in any one finite direction. Writer-director Conor McPherson is less interested in recognizing genre than he is in telling a multilayered story with beautifully drawn characters, following them wherever their paths may lead. In doing so, he leaves his enraptured audience feeling unbalanced in the best way, unprepared for the unexpected power to come. Poignant, tender and, in a few surprising choice scenes, outright horrifying, "The Eclipse" is best compared to 1999's moody, groundbreaking "The Sixth Sense
" and 2005's underrated, richly composed "Dark Water
"fellow tales of a psychological, ghostly nature with similar thematic trajectories. Grieving isn't hard at all, but learning to let go and accept what cannot be changed is.
Set over a life-altering one-week period during the annual Cobh International Literary Festival of Irish seaside community Cork County, widowed woodshop teacher Michael Farr (Ciaran Hinds) has volunteered, as he often does, to be a driver and assistant at the event. A middle-aged man who has long since given up his underlying dream of being a writer, Michael now spends the bulk of his time caring for 10-year-old son Thomas (Eanna Hardwicke) and 14-year-old daughter Sarah (Hannah Lynch) while trying to pick up the shattered pieces left behind in the wake of his wife's death two years earlier. On the night of the festival's opening ceremonies and banquet, Michael is awakened by a noise downstairs and, upon investigation, is faced with the sight of a shadowy figure disappearing into the next room. He believes it may be his father-in-law Malachy (Jim Norton), but when he calls the nursing home to check on his whereabouts he is reassured that the elderly man is asleep in his room. The next morning, Michael pays him a visit, and Malachy is bitter over not being picked up the night before to attend the banquet. More than that, he's still very much angry about the loss of his daughtera pain so great, he says, "it almost makes you think there can't be a god."
Over the next few days, Michael will be faced with increasingly alarming visions of the still-alive but unwell Malachy, otherworldly experiences that draw him to renowned writer of the supernatural Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle), in town for the festival. As she tries to ward off the advances of philandering, egocentric best-selling author Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn)a man she made the mistake of sleeping with once beforeLena finds herself developing a soulful bond with Michael that catches both of them off-guard. Connecting through their respective pasts involving the mysteries of the hereafter, she ultimately plays a pivotal, if fleeting, role in allowing him to realize his potential as a writer and come to terms with a loss too great for him to bear any longer.
Based on "Table Manners" from playwright Billy Roche's short story collection "Tales from Rainwater Pond," "The Eclipse" is as fresh as it is immediate. At 88 minutes, the film spares not a moment of screen time, potent with provocative ideas and varied subject matter. The backdrop of the literary festival is a deliciously specific detail that lays the groundwork for themes involving a writer's hope for outside approval and struggle for self-worth. For aspiring literati Michael, he has watched his dreams slip by him and has shoved them so far back in his mind that the mere thought seems like an impossibility. More centrally, director Conor McPherson grapples with the concept of death and the impact it has on the living. Michael's spectral encounters are all the more baffling because the spirit haunting him is still intact with its human bodya rare, but not unthinkable, occurrence, Lena tells him. Still, as she confirms in her reading to a room of enthralled attendees, Michael's knowledge of reality as he knows it must be reconfigured due to his sightingsconfirmation that there are metaphysical concepts greater than that of life lived from birth to death. In some ways, Mulachy holds Michael responsible for his daughter's passing from cancerhe was supposed to keep her safeand Michael can't help but feel a similar sense of guilt. Now he must watch his children grow up without a mother as he senses her physical presence drift further away from him. All that he has left are his memories and the pictures that adorn the walls of his homephotographs of people and things that no longer are.
The blossoming relationship between Michael and Lena, traveling from strictly professional to friendly to kindred and possibly romantic, is lovingly developed as counterpoint to Michael's internal struggles. Their time together is only temporaryshe will be leaving once the festival is overwhich makes their every interaction feel all the more critical and urgent. Lena, who has shut herself off from human companionshipshe's not much good at it, anyway, she saysand knows full well she's not interested in Nicholas, sees something different in Michael. There's a humanity and a vulnerability there that she finds disarming. They may not spend the rest of their lives together, but for this moment in time they are exactly what the other needs.
A gifted character actor receiving a rare well-deserved lead role, Ciaran Hinds (2008's "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
") is outstanding as the tortured Michael Farr, a good man who must face a deeper darkness before he can rise to the light. In his tender scenes with his children, in his quietly emotional showdown with his father-in-law, in his frightened confrontations with the other side, in his comfortable, hesitantly unguarded times with Lena, Hinds paints a full, honest, piercing portrait of a protagonist whose shades go far deeper than black and white. It's easy to see why he won the Best Actor award at the Tribeca Film Festival for this role. As Lena, Iben Hjejle (2000's "High Fidelity
") is a radiant, soulful find, her character ripe with a sweetly spontaneous demeanor and a basketful of insecurities. And Aidan Quinn (2010's "Jonah Hex
") plays against-type as the smarmy, childish Nicholas Holden, an author who can sell books, but hasn't seemed to gain any natural wisdom from his writing. Nicholas verges upon the line of caricature, but Quinn makes sure he never becomes one. For all his belligerence, Nicholas feels authentic, for better or worse.
Because "The Eclipse" appears to be so entrenched in day-to-day realism, its sudden, unforeseen dips into territory of things going bump in the night come off as all the more jarringly perverse. To say that the scares are supremely effective is to understate the matter. To say that they are some of the most singularly petrifying, jump-up-and-scream-in-pure-terror moments perhaps in cinema history would not be hyperbole. That they are surrounded by an overall more gentle story about the process of grief and the transcendent turn toward acceptance makes the horror elements all the more special and out of the ordinary. Gifted with handsome cinematography by Ivan McCullough and a sharp eye for both the solitariness of one's private moments and the fortuitous snapshots of human selflessness, "The Eclipse" concludes with an awe-inspiring sign of hope as cathartic as it is oddly soothing. Its ability to take your breath awaynot only in shock, but ultimately in genuine wonderis irreplaceable.