Iben Hjejle and Ciaran Hinds in The Eclipse

Director-writer Conor McPherson’s new film The Eclipse is almost impossible to classify:  blending elements of drama, romantic comedy, and horror, it offers appeal to a wide range of filmgoers. Unfortunately, the film’s aversion to easy pigeon-holing also means marketing it is no easy task: The Eclipse is receiving only minimal exposure on the art-house circuit, never mind a wider general release.

The film stars Ciaran Hinds as Michael Farr, a world-weary widower raising two children alone after his wife’s untimely death. Michael is a full-time woodworks teacher, amateur writer, and volunteer at the annual literary festival in his home town of Cobh, County Cork. With the festival underway once again, he’s called upon to transport and care for several of the writers in attendance.

One of his clients is American novelist Nicholas Hodges (Aidan Quinn); another is British writer Lena Morelle (High Fidelity’s Iben Hjejle), who’s previously been involved with Nicholas and has unwittingly committed adultery with him. Nicholas is eager to pick up where they left off, Lena less so, and Michael completes the triangle by bonding with Lena, whose tales of the supernatural resonate with the nightmare-stricken Irishman.

Michael’s dreams revolve, not around his late wife, but around wheelchair-bound father-in-law Malachy (Jim Norton, making the most of a small role). The dreams are disturbing visions of the old man’s impending demise — and after Malachy kills himself, Michael wonders if his sub-conscious mind has foretold the future. Distraught and guilt-ridden, he turns for understanding to Lena, whose novel, “The Eclipse”, relates her own chilling experiences with the supernatural.

As Michael and Lena grow closer, Nicholas grows angrier. Convinced he has a prior claim on his old flame, he fakes an allergy attack and inveigles his way back into Lena’s house, though not into her heart. When a grief-stricken Michael shows up on her doorstep looking for comfort in the wake of Malachy’s death, Nicholas interprets the visit as a threat, and things quickly turn ugly.

None of this sounds particularly terrifying, and indeed, there are only four scenes in  The Eclipse that could be described as supernatural — and one is more comforting than disturbing. Even hardened horror veterans, however, will be impressed by the other three: combined, these scenes last no more than ten seconds, but offer more genuine chills than a week’s worth of slasher flicks. Horror films work best when the viewer is mis-directed, and McPherson offers a master-class in mis-direction in The Eclipse.

Hinds, soon to be seen as Aberforth Dumbledore in the forthcoming Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, is excellent as the stolid yet vulnerable Michael, whilst Danish-born Hjejle offers a convincing English accent and a finely nuanced performance as Lena. The surprise of the film, however, is Quinn, who brings a Clooney-esque amiability to the otherwise loathsome Nicholas. There’s also a touch of Bill Murray’s mordant cluelessness in Quinn’s work here, and whilst he provides the film with most of its humorous moments, he also provides it with its greatest dramatic heft. I’ve never been a big Quinn fan before, but this is an award-worthy performance.

For all this fine acting, however, The Eclipse wouldn’t work as well as it does without Fionnuala Ni Chiosain’s elegiac score. Relying primarily on piano and strings, Ni Chiosain’s music never overwhelms the proceedings and supplies touches of dread dissonance during the film’s tensest moments. It’s all shot beautifully by cinematographer Ivan McCullough, who takes full advantage of picturesque Cobh locations without resorting to the postcard-perfect laziness that frequently hobbles Irish films (think Waking Ned Devine).

Sadly, The Eclipse will not be screening in Berkeley or elsewhere in the East Bay. It’s currently playing at the Opera Plaza Cinemas on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco, so Berkeleyside readers will need to take a trip across the Bridge to see the film on the big screen.  For those who enjoy a good chiller — or a good drama or rom-com — the trip will be worth it.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...