I don't like Meryl Streep. I never have. I probably never will. I don't hate her half so much as Katherine Hepburn did, of course, but I'm not sure if anyone does. She still only has two Oscars, Best Supporting for [i]Kramer vs. Kramer[/i], 1979, and Best Actress for [i]Sophie's Choice[/i], 1982. She's got fourteen nominations, the record, but three of them are Best Supporting, so Katherine Hepburn still wins in my book. Still, I like several of her performances, usually when you're not supposed to like her character very much, and this is one of those times.
[i]Dancing at Lughnasa[/i] is about the collapse of one Irish family. Their beloved, long-gone brother, Father Jack (Michael Gambon), has returned from Africa and his work among the lepers, but it turns out that he's not converted anyone and seems to have been converted to Pagan ways himself. His disgrace is responsible for getting Kit (Streep) fired from her teaching job. Chrissy (Catherine McCormack) had a child (Mike, played by Darrell Johnston) out of wedlock; he's our narrator (Gerald McSorley), and in the story, he's maybe nine. Maggie (Kathy Burke) is trying to keep the household together. Aggie (Brid Brennan) is in a dying business, making hand-knitted gloves. And Rosie (Sophie Thompson, Emma's sister) is a moderately retarded woman in love with a highly unappropriate, married man.
I think the greatest problem with the family, contrary to her own beliefs, is Kit. If she'd let her hold slip a little, the girls would've been able to find other ways of making a living while they were, you know, [i]young[/i]. Chrissy, in particular, could have found something, even with a young son. But she could not leave the family and Kit, even though it would clearly have been for the best. And, of course, Jack may have been crazy, but he was happier without Kit pressuring him to be normal.
And, in the end, the sisters share one perfect moment. Kit has spent the entire movie demanding that the girls forget the old Irish feast of Lughnasa, calling it merely something leading up to the Feast of the Blessed Assumption. However, in the end, tradition and love of the dance catches up to her, too, and she and her sisters share their last perfect moment, watched over by Father Jack and Mike, who can see it but not share it. It is a moment of just the girls, the sisters. It is a beautiful, pure moment, never to be repeated.
A word on Irish dancing--the Irish have been mocked for step dancing, because it's all standing in place and not moving their arms. This is because the English forbid dancing, but step dancing didn't count, because they were standing in place and not moving their arms. So [i]Riverdance[/i] is, I guess, throwing off the shackles of English imperialism. The dancing these girls do, I believe, predates those rules and is what the English were forbidding. Actually, the English pretty much banned all Irish culture--and, after the Jacobite revolt, Scottish as well.