1936, a pivotal year: the worldwide economic depression lingers, the Spanish Civil War draws world attention to intensifying confrontation between political right and left, change is in the air. Though Dancing at Lughnasa uses the voice-over of the only youngster in an Irish family to narrate the tale, it is not a coming of age story at all, but the story of a family coping with survival in a period of rapid change. The first radio in their modest farmhouse, the return of an elder brother from his missionary work in Africa with viewpoints altered by his experience abroad, hard economic times aggravated by the displacement of cottage industry with new factories – all form the context in which we meet five unmarried sisters who struggle to hold their family together. "The family will always manage," one says as their hardscrabble life grows ever more threatened.
Meryl Streep is fine as the dominating, repressed, school teacher sister, but director Pat O’Connor draws first class ensemble performances from the entire cast. Characters that might might have become caricatures aren’t, as the cast skillfully fleshes out the life and passions of each and O’Connor exercises both admirable restraint and disciplined editing. The camera’s eye brings us painterly beauty in the harsh Irish landscape.
The family faces economic changes with which they are ill equipped to cope, social and moral changes that turn their simpler church defined code for living upside down. Still, they find moments to share a laugh, a joyful dance, mutual protectiveness, love, and caring underneath the normal family verbal sniping. The ultimate sadness, that as a family they are doomed, makes their story, so rooted in time and place, one that resonates with meaning for all.