The Dead (1987)

The Dead (1987)

An exquisite, finely wrought swan song from one of cinema’s greatest directors

The Very Best



Ireland, United Kingdom
Anjelica Huston, Bairbre Dowling, Brendan Dillon
83 min


Contrary to the connotations of its title, The Dead couldn’t be more alive with emotion.

What it's about

A nostalgic dinner party brings the past and its ghosts back to life for one married couple.

The take

The last work by legendary American director John Huston is this exquisitely rendered adaptation of a James Joyce short story. The Dead is nestled inside an intimate festive dinner shared by the family and close friends of the Morkan sisters, two well-to-do elderly spinsters living in Dublin in 1904. The film is a family affair in more ways than just that, too: for Huston’s final feature, son Tony wrote the script and daughter Anjelica (as Gretta) was its star.

As with so many end-of-year gatherings, the prevailing mood of the dinner is one of sentimental nostalgia, as the hosts and their guests swap memories, toast each other, and tearily reminisce about the way things were. Anjelica Huston’s performance is also a quiet architect of that atmosphere, as Gretta slips in and out of dreamy reveries throughout the evening to the puzzlement of her husband Gabriel (Donal McCann) — something that surges to the fore in an astonishingly moving final revelation. Huston directed the film on his proverbial deathbed, which infuses it with significance — but, even if it wasn’t the capstone to his illustrious career, The Dead would still stand as one of the finest treatments of mortality and longing ever committed to the screen.

What stands out

The scene on the stairs. As the party winds down, Gabriel is getting ready to leave at the foot of the steps when a sublime voice floats down from above. One of the other guests, a celebrated tenor (Frank Patterson), is delighting his hosts with a lamenting rendition of The Lass of Aughrim, a traditional Irish folk song. Gretta is halfway down the stairs, but stops in her tracks to listen intently, her face ethereally illuminated from above. The song is palpably transporting her somewhere far away — and all Gabriel can do is watch as the crushing realization that she’s thinking of someone else slowly dawns on him. It’s such a powerful moment that it single-handedly throws their relationship into stark new light, as the film’s revelatory final scene lays bare. Even if The Dead didn’t provide us with an explicit explanation of what Gretta was thinking about, though, so much finely wrought meaning is conveyed in this wordless exchange between Huston and McCall that we’d instinctively understand its momentousness all the same.

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