Movies sometimes give us satisfyingly literate ghost stories—“The Haunting,” certainly, and “The Sixth Sense” and “The Others” are examples—and “The Eclipse” fits nicely into that tradition. Based on the stories of Billy Roche (who also appears in the picture as well as co-authoring the screenplay with director Conor McPherson), it’s a moodily evocative, quietly unnerving little tale of the pain of loss and the struggle to come to terms with grief.
Ciaran Hines plays Michael Farr, a woodshop teacher in the seaside town of Cobh in Ireland’s County Cork. Still mourning the death of his wife, he’s doing his best to raise his two children, Sarah (Hannah Lynch) and Thomas (Eanna Hardwicke), in their drafty old house. And he still takes the time to serve as a volunteer chauffeur for the writers who attend the town’s annual literary festival, partially at least because he once had aspirations to write himself, but also as a way of momentarily forgetting his loss.
But he can’t escape his intense sadness, especially because he may be being haunted not only by the memory of his wife, but by the spirit of his father-in-law Malachy (Jim Norton), who though still alive is housed, unhappily, in a nursing home. So when Michael is assigned to drive one of the festival’s authors, Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle) to and from events, he takes the opportunity to ask her, since she writes about ghosts and paranormal phenomena, about his own unsettling experiences. And over the course of a few days, their relationship blossoms into a real friendship.
It’s made far more difficult, though, by the presence of another author—the festival’s star, American Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn), an arrogant drunk who persuaded Lena to attend the fete in hopes of following up an earlier one-night stand (which she regrets) with something more permanent, even though he’s married. He sees Michael as a celebrity stalker whose intrusions threaten his own plans.
The strength of “The Eclipse” lies in the richness of the atmosphere it creates, marked in particular by scenes set in an ancient cemetery and repeated shots of the town’s cathedral looming in the distance (nicely captured in Ivan McCullough’s burnished cinematography), and the obliqueness and ambiguity of the storytelling; even when the spirit of Malachy appears (unfortunately, in a “gotcha” fashion that suggests a Hollywood horror film—the director’s major miscalculation), it’s uncertain whether the apparition is “real” or merely a manifestation of Michael’s psychological trauma.
But it also benefits from two exceptional performances. Hjejle is fine, and Norton good as well in his brief appearances. But Hinds and Quinn are remarkable. As Farr, the former’s dourness perfectly suits the tormented character, but Hines adds to it a deep vein of humanity that makes the man a tragically poignant figure. And Quinn has never been better on screen. He draws a brilliant portrait of a totally self-absorbed poseur whose sense of entitlement is so overwhelming that he’s oblivious to the needs of anybody else, or to the demands of common decency.
Some viewers may be disappointed that “The Eclipse” ends without the explicit sort of explanation such a picture would ordinarily provide. Instead, like “The Turn of the Screw,” it allows for different interpretations of apparently supernatural occurrences. But the conclusion is in fact a satisfying one in terms of resolving Farr’s psychological pain, which is obviously at the root of all that he experiences. As a horror film—which many will erroneously take it for—the picture may fail. But as a character study with frightening overtones—which it what it actually is—it succeeds beautifully.