The press kits that accompany most films usually aren't very useful beyond telling you how to spell the actors' names, but the one for The Eclipse was insightful. The film is an unusual mixture of somber character drama and supernatural horror, and the statement from director Conor McPherson confirms something I'd suspected from watching it: the supernatural elements were wedged into the screenplay after everything else.
McPherson says he started with a screenplay based on a short story by Billy Roche but was stymied in his efforts to make it work as a film until he came up with the ghosty stuff. It's a shame (or, rather, it's a shame that it's so obvious), because films that combine these two disparate genres successfully are rare. And The Eclipse, even with its flaws, is still a respectable effort, with sensitive performances and shrewd direction. It just doesn't live up to its promise.
It is set in the quaint Irish town of Cobh, where a widowed schoolteacher named Michael Farr (Ciaran Hinds) lives with his two teenage children and still mourns the death of his wife two years ago. Michael writes fiction for a hobby and longs to do it professionally, a desire that is increased by his involvement with Cobh's annual literary festival. Authors come to town from around the world to do readings and signings, and Michael is part of the volunteer staff, driving guests to their hotels, that sort of thing.
This year, he's assisting Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle, whose name is why press kits were invented), an author of ghost stories. Michael is particularly glad to be involved with her, not just because she is beautiful and unmarried but because he believes he has been seeing ghosts. Or, more exactly, one ghost. And of someone who isn't dead yet: his ancient father-in-law (Jim Norton), who languishes in a nursing home on the other side of town and most certainly has not been showing up late at night in Michael's living room, at least not physically. Lena writes about supernatural things because she honestly believes in them, so she's sympathetic to Michael's plight.
Also in town for the festival is Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn), an arrogant bestselling novelist with whom Lena has been having an affair. Nicholas is married but keeps saying he's going to leave his wife, yada yada. (You know the type.) He's disdainful of Michael for being a literary wannabe who lives in a backwards little town, and doesn't even bother to seriously consider him a rival for Lena's affections.
A widower dealing with grief, a romantic triangle, and an illicit affair are more than enough to fill one story. The addition of ghostly visions could have been a way to make the film stand out from its class; instead, those elements merely feel tacked on. Some of Michael's visions are alarming, but only because things leap out suddenly and are accompanied by loud jolts in the musical score -- scary-movie-making 101.
And yet it's still a good film, mostly because of Ciaran Hinds' emotionally heartfelt performance. Hinds, theater-trained and a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is the kind of actor whose work is always praiseworthy but who seldom gets much recognition for it. He and Iben Hjejle (High Fidelity) give the film maturity and depth. (Aidan Quinn is fine as Nicholas, but the role is underwritten: a generic cad who richly deserves the comeuppance he's destined to receive.)
As a title, The Eclipse seems to have been chosen rather arbitrarily. (It's the name of one of Lena's books.) But just as an eclipse means one celestial body has passed in front of another, blocking it from view, the two genres at play in the film -- character drama and supernatural thriller -- tend to get in each other's way. You can't really see either of them clearly.