Thomas (Eanna Hardwicke) is restless. The Cobh Literary Festival is starting again, and again, his father, Michael (Ciarán Hinds), has dragged him to the opening night dinner. As the camera in The Eclipse makes its gradual way around the dining room — silverware clattering, voices murmuring — its pause on the family’s table reveals Michael’s efforts to keep Thomas and his slightly older sister Sarah (Hannah Lynch) still. When at last they get home, Michael sends the kids upstairs, imagining that they’ve appreciated the chance to stay up late on a school night. Thomas is having none of that story. The evening has been as it always is: “Boring old speeches,” he sighs, as he heads past the camera perched in the stairway.
This oblique angle is typical of playwright Conor McPherson’s third feature, which is part ghost story, part romance, and all about close observation. That’s not to say Michael is especially attentive to his young children, but more precisely, that the camera keeps focused on how he’s distracted, how he misses what’s important to them. Michael’s good at maintaining their lives following the recent loss of his wife, Eleanor (Avian Egan), to cancer. He’s not yet sorted out how to live without her, and the house feels both empty and oddly occupied: as he empties the dishwasher, the camera approaches as if taking someone’s point of view, hovering a few steps from him, then panning left to an assortment of family photos — a shorthand way of laying out history, from happy snapshots to mom’s gaunt face and telltale turban.
Michael’s loneliness and grief seem a cause for his haunting, not by Eleanor’s ghost per se, but by her father’s. When, late that night, Michael hears banging on the doors and rustling outside, he calls the nursing home where Malachy (Jim Norton) now lives, not quite reassured when he learns the old man is asleep in bed. The next morning, he drives out to see Malachy, who is indeed angry at his son-in-law: he was dressed to attend the literary club dinner, left alone and un-picked-up. “Sorry,” Michael doesn’t really apologize, “Things are a bit mad, I totally forgot about you yesterday.” He’s busy, he says, with the children. “Yeah, the children,” Malachy shoots back. “Don’t ever let them put you in a home, Michael.”
Amid this turmoil, Michael is assigned by the book club to drive a couple of authors to and from meetings, one arrogant and entitled (Nicholas, played by Aiden Quinn), the other sensitive and lovely. It happens that Lena (Iben Hjejle) is also interested in ghosts, which makes for an immediate connection, at least in Michael’s mind. He stands in the back of the room, composed and expressionless, as she reads:
Then she knew that she was seeing a ghost and she realized for perhaps the first time in her life that she too would die, that her husband would die, and that her children would die. She knew in that moment that she was that looking at reality.
This is a rather poetic notion of reality — the abstraction of death made concrete, more or less, in the form of a ghost — but it moves Michael. Not only does he begin to see more specific versions of Malachy as a ghost, but he also makes an actual effort to look after Lena when he notices her distress. This has very little to do with him; she’s been assigned living quarters in a house on a very pretty but very remote beach, and at night she hears peculiar noises — animal screeches and windy moans. But Lena’s most immediate concern is Nicholas, increasingly possessive following an apparent romantic encounter. When he whines that he’s just about worked up the nerve to tell his wife “about us,” Lena looks stricken: for her own reasons, she had believed him when he said, last time, that he was separated.
As it happens, Nicholas, for all his boorishness and heavy drinking, is more attentive than the seemingly sensitive Michael. At least he notices Lena’s tentative interest in him, and condemns it outright. “That guy is a stalker,” he tells her, showing off his experience at literary festivals. “They’re failed writers, all of them. The guys who drive you around, they’re the worst.” Nicholas goes so far as to ferret out Michael’s pugilistic past — he was a boxer, the driver confesses, though not seriously. Now Nicholas thinks he knows his opponent, a mirror of himself, or at least a character he once imagined. Michael appears to fit the bill, too, an erstwhile manly man, now reduced quite literally to scribbling in his basement, looking for relief from his bereavement and ready to see in Lena — as Nicholas has been — a kind of salvation.
To the film’s credit, Lena doesn’t quite meet either man’s needs. But she has to watch them fight it out for a few too many scenes, during which you’re more or less positioned alongside her: incredulous, confused, briefly intrigued then wishing you hadn’t stumbled on this cartoonish version of men’s business — their boyish restlessness and incessant inability to say what they mean. Indeed, The Eclipse is most moving when the action stops, when the men stop talking, and the camera observes details — of barely lit faces and hands on steering wheels, creaky stairs and long silences at kitchen tables.