27 September 2016 | lasttimeisaw
John Houston takes his exit with an elegiac meditation in honoring his forefathers and passing on his wisdom to his devout audience
Released posthumously, THE DEAD bookends John Huston's illustrious career spanning 46 years, which is kick-started with a bang by THE MALTESE FALCON (1941). Adapted to the screen from James Royce's source story from his shorts collection DUBLINERS by John's son Tony, and stars his daughter Anjelica, plus a succinct length of merely 83 minutes and the fact that its story is mostly confined in a single location, THE DEAD is a small-scale labour of love of Huston (and his family too), an octogenarian ruminates about his fulfilled life and ponders what is inevitably waiting for him. But, don't be misled by its title, the film doesn't dwells on that morbid subject, instead, its life-force engendered from the lively festivity of a January dinner in Dublin 1904.
University professor Gabriel Conroy (McCann) and his wife Gretta (Houston) are invited to attend the annual dance and dinner to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, hosted by the former's aunties, the Morkan sisters, Kate (Carroll) and her elder sibling Julia (Delany), as well as their niece Mary Jane (Craigie). Other guests are also presented, among which there is Mr. Grace (McClory, the Irish old stager in his final silver screen presence), a character doesn't exist in Royce's original text, entertains audience with his sublime recitation of a Middle Irish poem YOUNG DONAL, " ..You have taken the east from me; you have taken the west from me; you have taken what is before me and what is behind me; you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me; and my fear is great that you have taken God from me.", it is a magic moment where the sheer power of words embraces its deserved cinematic glory.
Another highlights include Freddy Malins (Donnelly, an unforeseen usurper in my BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR list), a middle-aged bachelor, a raging alcoholic, Gabriel's childhood friend, noticeably under the influence, his soused conduct sterlingly breathes an air of discomfiture and drollness on top of the cordiality presented by the rest of the ensemble; whereas his mother Ms. Malins (Kean), a helicopter parent who perhaps isn't even aware of what damage she has done, and risibly puzzles why her son keeps being such a disappointment and laughing stock.
Irish hospitality, as Gabriel addresses in his heart-felt tribute speech to the three hostesses, whom he praises as "three Graces", is the glue brings everybody altogether, regardless of their tastes in music, political stances or even religious persuasions. Cathleen Delany as Aunt Julia, upstages the rest of the Irish ensemble with her grand reaction shots and bolstered by her rendition of an Irish folk song, purely because it is too rare a case that the script would give sizable screen time to a senior lady singing in her weather-beaten timbre (apart from Ms. Florence Foster Jenkins for obvious reason).
Anjelica Houston, shares her last journey of movie-making with her esteemed father, takes a back seat in the dinner party with her composed demeanor, until Gretta's concealed memory is unexpectedly prompted by THE LASS OF AUGHRIM sung by the tenor Bartell D'Arcy (Patterson), when the party is winding down. In her quietly poignant confession of a deceased young man who she fell in love with, the film reaches its well-earned catharsis through Donal McCann's reflective voice-over about certain existential epiphany, enhanced by the picturesque montage from DP Fred Murphy and Alex North's conspicuously pensive accompanying score.
John Houston takes his exit with an elegiac meditation in honoring his forefathers and passing on his wisdom to his devout audience, it is brimming with loftiness, sincerity and an utterly captivating sensibility, and we wish the party would never be over, because goodbye is the hardest word to say to a beloved master.