Conor McPherson’s “The Eclipse” is a gem: a smart, deliberately paced tale of mourning and renewal, a ghost story with a few moments of terror and well-observed emotional truths.
Based on a short story by Billy Roche (and cowritten by Roche and McPherson), “The Eclipse” is about Michael Farr (Ciaran Hinds), a widower in the Irish town of Cobh, where he lives with his two pre-teen children He teaches woodworking at the local school and, on the weekend in which the film is set, is serving as a volunteer driver for the local literary festival.
But Michael is troubled in ways he can’t define. He hears and sees things in the drafty old townhouse where he lives, though he isn’t sure whether they’re ghosts or something else. The fact that the first one he sees looks like his father-in-law, Malachy (Jim Norton), who is alive if not all that well at a local nursing home, is particularly troubling.
He’s obviously still mourning the cancer death of his wife a couple of years earlier (though, he admits, he’s never seen her spirit). But Michael is a stoic, get-on-with-it kind of guy, dutiful father and upright citizen.
His volunteer work during the festival brings him in contact with two writers: the insufferable Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn) and the lovely, more hesitant Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle). Obviously put off by Nicholas – and attracted to Lena – Michael reveals little of his feelings to either, though his response to them is obvious to the audience.
“The Eclipse” lives and breathes through Hinds’ marvelously understated but full-bodied performance. Michael is struggling but not unraveling. He is unnerved by the brief moments of terror – visions? visitations? hallucinations? – that he experiences, but only in the moment.
In the world McPherson creates, ghosts may actually exist – or they may simply be part of Michael’s troubled imagination. Even so, they are real for him, allowing him to let down his guard with Lena, whose most recent novel, called “The Eclipse,” is about ghosts.
McPherson places this story within a living context: a literary festival and the daily life of Michael. Even as Michael deals with strange occurrences, his life goes on, whether it’s visiting Malachy at the home, disciplining his headstrong young son or giving Lena a tour of Cobh’s more picturesque sights.
Yet he avoids the clichés of this kind of film: There is no thunderstruck, life-changing romance between the visitor and the host, though they have their moment. Nor do ghosts ever take over the story or become central to the plot, except as metaphor. Rather, the film takes its time – lovingly so and in lovely fashion – to build these characters and their relationship.
Hinds is so good that it would be easy to overlook Hjejle, who has a wary intelligence and controlled warmth that she refuses to use indiscriminately. Quinn is particularly good (and ruefully funny), capturing this pompous twit in all his smarmy fake charm and snarling sense of entitlement.
Be clear: “The Eclipse” does include two or three scream-worthy, even “Carrie”-like moments. But they neither define nor dominate what is, in the end, a lovely tale of grief, love and moving on.