The Dead Review

Based on the James Joyce short story that closes his collection ‘Dubliners’, ‘The Dead’ is the crowning achievement of the collection which, as the title suggests, depicts the lives of the people of the city of Dublin from a variety of aspects. Not unexpectedly, it is memories of the past and of the dead and the hold they have over the living which is the subject of ‘The Dead’, a presence that is felt throughout John Huston’s faithful to the letter adaptation of the story to the screen.

The events of the film, as in the story, take place over the course of a single evening, the 6th January 1904, at a party thrown by the Morkan sisters Kate and Julia (Helena Carroll and Cathleen Delany) and their niece Mary Jane (Ingrid Craigie), to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. A large gathering of friends and relatives come together to share stories, recitals, songs and music, reminiscing on events and people of the past. Among the guests are their nephew Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) and his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston). Gabriel is troubled about a speech he has to make as the master of ceremonies, wanting to strike the right note and keep the tone of the evening in hand, but is constantly being caught off-guard by the behaviour of other guests, not least Freddy Malins (Donal Donnelly), who has shockingly, but not unexpectedly, turned up to the party drunk, but he is also disconcerted by Miss Ivors (Maria McDermottroe), a young Republican who teases him for not being nationalistic enough. For his wife Gretta however, the evening brings back memories of her childhood, and the death of a young man, Michael Furey, who once courted her.

Much as Joyce, in his novel ‘Ulysses’, aimed to depict the city of Dublin in such an all-encompassing manner that the city could be recreated piece by piece from his writing long after it had disappeared, so too in ‘Dubliners’ and most vividly in ‘The Dead’, Joyce recreates, with precision and accuracy of tone, the lives of the people of the city through the minutiae of a single evening. Over the course of this evening we see life in its essence – hopes, illusions, passions, bitterness, disappointment, conflict, warmth and affection. The scope of the story however takes in much, much more than this, capturing all the little things that people cling to for comfort and in order to help define their lives and who they are, such as tradition, friendship, nationalism, and memories. However, these are all things that are intangible, impermanent and destined to change, terrifying us for our inability to grasp them, control them or even understand what they mean to another person - for who can fathom the unknown recesses of another person’s heart? This is summed up in the haunting monologue that closes the film, but is also felt throughout an evening which is infused with beauty and joy as well as sadness with the thought that the evening will end, and the tradition will also end with the inevitable death of one of the elderly sisters, which cannot be long away. And eventually, for all their life and passions, all the others will likewise follow the way of Michael Furey.

The Dead was John Huston’s final film – seriously ill during its making, he would die before the film was even released – and it is an appropriate and brilliant point on which to end an important filmmaking career. It bears no grand marks that this is a John Huston film, but the director’s filmmaking genius is evident in the way he takes an extremely difficult text that lacks plot or conventional narrative and, in a way that Joyce would surely appreciate, recreates the period and rekindles life into its characters. Huston remains utterly faithful to the text and dialogues that are taken straight off the page, but he breathes life into them not only through the recitations, the songs, the music, but with a subtle and delicate touch for detail, nuance and changes of mood. Meticulous in its authenticity of period detail and ornamentation – all of which contribute greatly - The Dead captures not only a long gone period of time, but customs and traditions, with attitudes, characteristics and behaviour that are particularly Irish, particularly Dublin, particularly anglicised Dublin, with its nationalists and “West Britons”. All this is there in their speech patterns, the warmth and wit of their exchanges, their manners and morals, their way of social interaction and views on entertainment and politics.

For all the period authenticity and marvellous observation, both in Joyce’s work and in Huston’s remarkable recreation of it, this is not however a preserved in amber period piece. Just as the characters are defined by their pasts, the deaths that have touched their lives, and the deaths to come (the growing Republican movement alluded to here would soon culminate in the 1916 Easter Rising, not long after the publication of Dubliners), so too the passing of these characters leaves the foundation that the present is built upon, our lives, attitudes, morals and aspirations inextricably linked to those in the past – the dead.

The Dead is released in the UK by Network. The DVD is in PAL format and encoded for Region 2. It is available at budget price.

Disappointingly for such a beautiful film, the DVD transfer is rather average. Happily, the transfer is at least anamorphic at the correct ratio of 1.85:1, and not as it is confusingly indicated on the cover of the DVD “16:9 letterbox”. It’s a reasonably clear print, that has little in the way of consistent damage, but when marks and scratches do show up, they are of the larger variety, trailing down sections of the print. The print is a little dark and strongly contrasted, colours looking a little washed out and brownish in tone, there is some light flicker and flare, and the image is a touch on the soft and grainy side - all of which, along with some large reel-change marks, would suggest that this is sourced from a fairly old theatrical print of the film. Certainly, the warm tones that are very much part of the period character of the film are still there, and as such, despite its shortcomings, the print still largely retains the natural ambience of the film. For an 80-minute film, a single-layer disc should be adequate, and although some macroblocking artefacts can occasionally be seen in dark backgrounds, for the major part of the film this is indeed sufficient.

The audio track also betrays the age and use of the print, with some quite noticeable crackles and pops, some intruding quite prominently into dialogue, which itself suffers from a little bit of hiss and sibilance. Nonetheless, the dialogue is clear, with reasonable depth, tone and clarity and there is good stereo separation.

The film is in English, but there are no hard of hearing subtitles on this edition.

There are no extra features on this release.

On the surface, The Dead seems to be a simple and pointless film, without a plot and full of a lot of old social talk of a distant period - but it touches on all the essential things that people live for – passion, love, friendship, tradition, a sense of belonging to a family, a people or a nation. I have seen this film many, many times over the years and I can never tire of it – it’s like returning to a traditional meeting of cherished friends, where you know that everyone is going to behave true to form and character, but still long for the comfort of that familiarity, finding new and deeper resonance each time the same old stories are told and conversations turn around to the same old topics. This is entirely what the film sets out to create – not only as a remembrance to times past and of the dead long gone, but of their inescapable presence and influence which persists, upon which everything is built and to which everything in its turn falls.

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