Dancing at Lughnasa

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media
Dancing at Lughnasa Movie Poster Image
Play-based historical drama has mature themes.
  • PG
  • 1998
  • 95 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Poverty and lack of opportunity can stunt people's ability to grow into functioning adults.

Positive Role Models & Representations

A few of the sisters are willing to stand up to the oldest sister's judgmental authority.

Violence

A soldier was wounded. Rose is frightened when the boat she's in is rocked.

Sex

A man wants sex from a woman after he's taken her for a boat ride, although he asks for it subtly. A child is born out of wedlock.

Language

"Bitch" and "damn." 

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults drink heavily.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Dancing at Lughnasa is a 1998 film based on Brian Friel's 1990 Tony Award-winning play. There's little here to interest younger viewers, with the possible exception of narration by an adult recalling his life at age 7. Poverty and lost opportunity in rural Ireland of the 1930s dominate a gray atmosphere where work dries up and a grim future looms. A child is born out of wedlock. Adults drink alcohol. A longing for love is expressed and euphemistic references to sex are made. Language includes "bitch" and "damn."

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What's the story?

DANCING AT LUGHNASA is set in 1936 County Donegal, Ireland, where self righteous Kate Mundy (Meryl Streep), a bossy and condescending school marm, rules over her four younger adult sisters. The homecoming of brother Jack (Michael Gambon), a priest returning after 25 years of missionary service in Uganda, is a major event in their drab lives. Kate and siblings Chris (Catherine McCormack), Maggie (Kathy Burke), and Agnes (Brid Brennan) have suffered crushing poverty, having been forced to live together and care for special needs sister Rose (Sophie Thompson) in their tiny family home, as well as Chris' out-of-wedlock son, Michael. None have married and it feels as if Kate's demands of loyalty, her harsh religiosity, and her disdain for men have left them all unloved. Having risen to the priesthood, Jack is a point of pride, but he returns a broken man, perhaps malaria-ridden, seemingly converted to the religion of the Africans he now longs for. He's not always coherent, and almost childlike in demeanor. Hard physical labor takes up the women's days -- they scrub clothes on washboards, plant and dig up the potato crop, and care for Rose, the sister they refer to as "simple." When she falls for a local whose wife has left him, they worry he will take sexual advantage of her. Their "wireless" is prized, but Kate disdains dancing and music, or any real joy. Catholicism butts up against rites performed by local "pagan" Celtic denizens and that's why Kate vetoes her sisters' attendance at the local harvest dance. She also condemns the return of Michel's father, Jerry (Rhys Ifans), a charmer certain to disappear as quickly as he came.

Is it any good?

There's much to appreciate here -- great performances and a sense of authenticity. Dancing at Lughnasa is based on playwright Brian Friel's own poverty-stricken Irish childhood. The cinematography depicts both a lush and beautiful rural landscape and also the grim unavoidable future of the Mundy family. But this often feels like a long funeral poem, beautiful but hard to witness, and a bit stiff, perhaps the result of turning what must have been a moving play into a presumably far less affecting movie.

Ultimately the viewer will decide whether there is merit in watching the tragedy of narrow-mindedness and bullying by an eldest sister and the terrible effects on a family of siblings who stuck together out of loyalty and lack of other choices. Sterling performances by Meryl Streep, Catherine McCormack, Michael Gambon, and Kathy Burke may not outweigh the unrelenting grimness and predictability. The only surprises here are unexplained ones that don't rise organically out of the material and thus add little to our understanding of these characters. The movie's most glorious moment comes when the radio plays music and the women, downtrodden but still alive in their hearts, begin to dance with a joy their bleak circumstances have nearly killed.  

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how families stay together. Can you imagine what might have happened in the Mundy family that would give Kate a seemingly parental role among her siblings?

  • What part does religion play in the family and in the community based on what we see in Dancing at Lughnasa?

  • Why do you think becoming either a priest or a soldier would be viewed as a way out of poverty in Ireland of the 1930s?

Movie details

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