In "The Eclipse," the acclaimed Irish playwright Conor McPherson has crafted a film every bit as affecting and haunting as his plays.
It's a small, humble gem of a movie that in less than 1 1/2 hours proves McPherson's talents for character and atmosphere fit the screen as much as they do the stage.
The 38-year-old playwright of "The Weir" and "The Seafarer" has trafficked in movies before. He directed "Saltwater" (2000) and "The Actors" (2003), both little-seen and poorly reviewed. McPherson has said "The Eclipse" — which more thoroughly bears his imprint — is for all intents and purposes his first proper film.
It stars Ciaran Hinds ("There Will Be Blood," HBO's "Rome") as Michael Farr, a father of a 14-year-old and a 10-year-old. Widowed for two years by his wife's death from cancer, he has continued a quiet life as a woodworking teacher in the Irish coastal city of Cobh.
During "The Eclipse," he is also volunteering at the city's annual literary festival, driving around a visiting writer of ghost stories, Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle). Michael, himself, is haunted. He sees realistic, horrifying visions, including a premonition of his father-in-law's death.
Lena, a soulful writer from London (her book is the film's title), is badgered by a former fling, best-selling novelist Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn). Quinn plays the character expertly: A liar, drunk and adulterer, Nicholas is brashly arrogant but so insecure that he challenges Michael — whom he sees as a threat to his pursuit of Lena — to a late-night boxing match.
Michael bonds with Lena, someone who understands his visions. Hinds, a gifted actor who's clearly capable of being a leading man more frequently, was deservedly named best actor for his performance at last year's Tribeca Film Festival. He has a resonating gravity as Michael, a gentle man trying — and failing — to hide the weight of his demons.
McPherson has made the supernatural something of a trademark. "The Eclipse" is adapted from a short story by the playwright Billy Roche, with whom McPherson co-wrote the script. One of McPherson's biggest changes was turning Michael into a widower, not unlike the protagonist of his play "Shining City," who was also a ghost-seeing widower, played by Hinds on Broadway.
What's curious about the supernatural elements of "The Eclipse" is that their appearances feel more like ugly cameos of reality: In McPherson's world, life is the dream from which the ghosts wake you. The misty shore of Cobh, a quiet cigarette in the dark — these moments are no less "real" than Michael's supernatural visits.
Healing is at the heart of "The Eclipse." Warm choral music, arranged by McPherson and composer Fionnuala Ni Chiosain, creeps over the film, promising brighter days.
By the final, frozen image of "The Eclipse" — an unburdened Michael strolling down the beach with his dog — it's clear what the film means: that grief can haunt like a ghost, and that it passes.
"The Eclipse," a Magnolia Pictures release, is rated R for language and some disturbing images. Running time: 88 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.