In the era of Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting, it takes a certain nerve for a hip, young director to make a movie of a play like this. Long Day’s Journey Into Night is almost three hours long and relentlessly gloomy. All the action takes place within the darkening interior of a house shrouded by fog. The usual tricks for making a play more cinematic—cutting down the text and taking the action outdoors—would be absurd in this case. Long Day's Journey would become Short Day’s Trip. The power of the drama resides in the exquisite claustrophobia of being trapped with a family as it gradually lays itself bare through bouts of recrimination, confession and remorse.
In adapting the Stratford Festival’s internationally acclaimed 1994 production, 34-year-old Toronto director David Wellington has preserved what may well be the definitive version of Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece. It is no more than a filmed play, shot without gimmickry on a set built as a replica of O’Neill’s house. But Wellington gives it a richly textured, wide-screen look. And his camera discreetly circles the characters with a sly,
mesmerizing grace, allowing a greater sense of intimacy than in the stage version.
The film delivers the Stratford performances to the screen intact, and they are extraordinary. William Hutt achieves a shrewd, crisp clarity as James Tyrone, an alcoholic miser who gave up a Shakespearean acting career for typecast roles. And, at the emotional centre of the drama, Martha Henry is brilliant as his wife, the morphine-addicted Mary. The role almost invites melodrama, yet without diluting its theatricality, Henry reins in the character and makes her real, locating that knife-edge of paranoid wit on which Mary’s emotions are so precariously balanced. Her transitions from blithe reverie to stone-cold bitterness are devastating.
Tom McCamus brings a contemporary edge to the role of the younger son, Edmund, a struggling poet seriously ill with consumption. Rounding out the quartet, Peter Donaldson makes a weaker impression as his drunken older brother, but the character is weaker to begin with.
Long Day's Journey is no picnic. Running at 173 minutes, it is something of an endurance test—but one in which patience is amply rewarded.
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