Michael Farr, Ciarán Hinds’ character in The Eclipse, is a very un-movie kind of protagonist. He’s sad, homely, humble and a little self-conscious. His wife died recently, and he doesn’t pretend that he’s attractive enough to find another woman. Instead, he’s focusing on the rest of his life: doing his work, raising his kids, and pursuing his hobby — books — as a volunteer with a local book festival.
Into his life falls the perfect woman — not that he or anyone else imagines they could be an item. Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle) is a published author, perhaps ten years younger than him, and fit and pretty to boot.
She’s attending the fest in his Irish home town when he makes a terrible first impression. He’s delivering her welcome basket; there’s no answer at the door so he lets himself in; she probably takes him for a robber, or worse.
The tension between artist and attaché is likely to be of interest to any film critic. Another author played by Aidan Quinn is more boorish and demanding. He says offhand that the festival volunteers are all failed writers who want to show their own work to the successful guests. That he is right about them makes his disdain seem all the more mean.
The sadness of Farr’s widowhood permeates the film, turning the Irish skies gray. His father-in-law’s disapproval, delivered from the shadowy attic (with an oddly gorgeous view) in the retirement home, adds a generous dose of guilt that colors the dramatically obvious setup of single man meets single woman.
In a small handful of scenes, the film’s bittersweet darkness becomes a stabbing pang of terror. I’m guessing director Conor McPherson was raised on horror movies, because he includes a sharp hit on the soundtrack accompanied by a sudden horrible vision.
At first I guessed that McPherson wanted to scare me. But the sad and hopeful tone of the film — lonely people who could offer each other bright company — made me look again. And indeed the “horror” scenes are used strategically. They give cinematic power to the internal forces of doubt and guilt that keep the protagonists apart.
Lena’s new book is about ghosts, which almost justifies the film’s scarier scenes, and also offers another way to view the stories of the main characters. We say that we are “haunted” by the past, and in the case of The Eclipse, it’s an apt word that captures the emotional pain of changes to long-ingrained habits.
The Eclipse might be a little obscure for the casual viewer, and my more squeamish friends would want to block out the screen too often to appreciate it. But I find the longer I stare at The Eclipse the more there is to see.