Cult Cinema: The Eclipse (2009) - Reviewed

Supernatural thrillers or ghost story films generally tend towards the horror genre replete with their own sets of tropes and, for many, shortcomings.  Including but not limited to the moody cinematography, the jump scare and/or a final twist, generally the ghost story film is pretty cut and dried.  Which makes the 2009 multiple award-winning Irish film The Eclipse by writer-director Conor McPherson something of an outlier in the genre by placing the supernatural elements and occasional scares within the framework of a drama as a confrontational exploration of grief.  Though McPherson hasn’t made another film since with his own reputation damaged after working on the screenplay for the much-maligned Artemis Fowl, The Eclipse is a rare breed of psychological thriller and character study you’d never see from major studios.
Widower Michael Farr (Ciarán Hinds), grieving the loss of his wife from two years prior, is a teacher living with his two children in the small seaside town of Cobh in County Cork, Ireland.  On the side he volunteers for an international literary festival, tasked with giving ghost story novelist Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle) a tour of the region.  Also on board is famed author Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn) with whom Lena had an affair a year earlier.  As Michael and Lena form a kinship and stoke the jealousies of Nicholas, the depressed Michael inexplicably begins seeing and hearing strange things at night.  Uncertain if the apparitions and sounds are real or imagined, he confides his sightings in Lena.  As tensions mount between the three over Lena’s affections, Michael’s ghostly visions grow ever more visceral and unsettling as time goes on.

An Irish drama which never explicitly declares itself to be a ghost story, flirting with the idea throughout but never averting from its primary focus on the triangular conflict between these three characters, The Eclipse is one of the more unique supernatural thrillers for leaving the audience unsure of what kind of genre this exactly fits into.  Unlike other ghost stories which build up into tales of unfinished business or effects filled hauntings, The Eclipse achieves a sustained mood of dread and unease without ever falling into the trappings of the horror genre.  First and foremost this is a grief stricken character study whose paranormal events are incidental to the story and may or may not be borne out of the sorrow of the main protagonist.
Visually The Eclipse is scenic and evocative with dimly lit monochromatic grays and blues by Ivan McCullough and the original score by Fionnuala Ní Chiosáin ranges from quietly somber to sneakily making your hairs stand on end unexpectedly.  Let it be said Ciarán Hinds is one of the great underrated Irish character actors, always turning up in supporting roles but here he takes center stage and makes Michael a haunted figure, consumed by grief to the point of possible hallucination.  Also strong is Aidan Quinn who makes the rival author Nicholas both an irrational drunk with a mean streak and an equally flawed and lost character not dissimilar from Michael. 

A clandestine Irish gem that’s largely overlooked by most filmgoers, The Eclipse gains its quiet power by not making the supernatural (or psychological?) elements not the main focus of the piece, instead making it part of the characters’ lives.  Moreover, it suggests the grieving process may conjure up ghostly apparitions all by itself and neither the characters nor the audience are entirely certain of what is real or imagined.  Mostly the film is a showcase for the many talents of Ciarán Hinds whom I’ve always been aware of in films over the years but never had the chance to see him take the bull by the horns before.  Those looking for a traditional supernatural chiller will come away somewhat frustrated by the vagueness of The Eclipse while others wanting for the genre to do something risky and new will be elated by it.  You don’t see ghost story films like this come around often.

--Andrew Kotwicki