In the turbulent times of 1936, the five unmarried Mundy sisters live in a modest croft at the heart of a rugged farm outside Ballybeg, a small town in Donegal. The imperious teacher Kate (Meryl Streep), the irreverent big-hearted keeper of the hearth Maggie (Kathy Burke), the serene familial rudder Agnes (Brid Brennan), the sweetly eccentric and simple-minded Rose (Sophie Thompson), and the lonely romantic Christina (Catherine McCormack), who has creased the family reputation with an illegitimate son; all are heavenly bodies revolving around the 8-year old love child, Michael (Darrell Johnston).
Dancing at Lughnasa is told from his memories, summoning back to the end of that summer, on the eve of celebration to the harvest diety Lugh, god of music and light. But the celebration of the film . . . the music and the light of it . . . really lives within the sisters, a gift they share with each other and the ones they love. In the Mundy household, they are simultaneously the storm and the buoy, a sharp judgment will always give way to loving forgiveness, a reproach is merely a prelude to a song or a cup of tea or an act of kindness. They are a family marked by the unfailing courage they possess for each other. But now it is on the threshhold of autumn, where events will conspire to irretrievably change the golden season of the Mundy's.
The croft bustles as the sisters prepare to meet their older brother Jack (Michael Gambon), a priest returning home after 25 years in the dark continent of Africa where he was sent by the Church to convert remote heathen tribes. But their pride is temporarily deflated as a frail and disoriented Jack totters off the bus, his makeshift luggage hording pagan African artifacts and memorabilia. Jack's embrace of exotic cultures has alienated the Church, upon which all aspects of local life depend. But Jack seems to glow with simple grace of human passion, and innocently revels in the creation of Michael, a creature who exists purely from love without obligation.
The male presence is compounded when Michael's father, Gerry Evans (Rhys Ifans) unexpectedly arrives with the disquieting rumble of his motorbike. Gerry is a searcher/wanderer, a dreamer whose journey constantly changes destination and brings him into the orbit of his son so sporadically the boy fails to recognize him. This brief sojourn is merely an interlude on Gerry's path to Spain, where he plans to join International Brigade against Franco. But it is enough time to forge an awkward bond with his son, to excavate the hidden wisdom of Jack, and to spark an independent abandon in the sisters that has laid dormant under years of duty and service.
Dancing at Lughnasa breathes through the festival of Lughnasa, the brilliant images of African customs that Jack imposes on the misty farm, and the kites that Michael chases, wonderfully decorated by his own hand - an early artistic vision that will later allow him to so eloquently recall a family to whom fate has dealt a severe blow. They meet their fate bravely. The memories of that summer in 1936 haunt Michael into manhood. Memories of love and loss. And of the women dancing, in a final celebration of life before it changed forever.
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