Based on the play by Brian Friel, this is the story of the defining summer of Michæl Mundy (Darrell Johnston). In Donegal, Ireland in 1936, Michæl, illegitimate, lived with his mother, Christina (Catherine McCormack) and her four spirited, spinster sisters. Poor, but proud and self-sufficient, the Mundy clan were happy until they got some men in their lives. Hilarity Ensues.
Luckily, this is the story of the sisters, not the coming of age story of an 8 year old. There’s also a bit more going on thematically. The Catholic Church permeates and dominates all aspects of life in this tiny Irish town. Christina is looked down upon for her child born out of wedlock. Sister Kate (an always excellent Meryl Streep) is a “righteous bitch” of a school teacher and the primary breadwinner of the family who feels the brunt of responsibility. Sister Rose (Sophie Thompson) is “simple” and cannot completely care for herself, and sisters Maggie and Agnes (Kathy Burke and Brid Brennan) care for the rundown house and knit gloves to help make ends meet. All the women dote upon Michæl.
Then the men show up. First is their brother, Father Jack (Michæl Gambon), who’s spent the last 25 years in Africa, purportedly to give the White man’s religion to the natives. Jack is old and sick, and doesn’t appear to quite mentally together. Second is Michæl’s father, Gerry Evans (Rhys Ifans). Gerry has come to spend time with the family before running off to Spain to fight Franco. He loves both Christina and Michæl, but has a slight problem with responsibility. Kate makes him sleep in the barn. The disruption to the sisters’ lives is quite permanent.
What’s the point to all this? Basically we witness the various aspects of oppression inflicted by a male dominated Catholic society upon women. This culture has little use for unmarried women over 30. The ascribed role for them was mother and wife. All of the sisters were past the age of courtship except for Christina, who is disgraced in the eyes of the church for having a “love” child.
It was a great source of pride to the women that they had a priest for a brother doing missionary work in Africa. However, Father Jack kind of went native down there and reveled in the joy, love, and pagan dance rituals of the culture, similar to the one Ireland itself once had before the people’s pagan beliefs were likewise converted. Jack was sent home not because of illness but as punishment. Kate is soon fired from her position as additional retaliation for Jack’s perceived failures. Listening the radio, Jack asks Kate to dance, an act she likes to heresy from a priest.
The title refers to a pagan ritual of the area, still celebrated. Dancing is an act of celebration and release, barely tolerated by the church who view it as a threat. The church fails and punishes the fail repeatedly. Their strength lies in their love and support of each other. They are never more united than in the moments where they are dancing together, an act to demonstrate their love. This could have been the art film “Footloose”. I guess we’re better off that it’s not.