''You do not dance!'' That's Kate Mundy (Meryl Streep), the eldest of five mousy, affection-starved sisters living under one roof in the Irish countryside during the mid-'30s, as she lays down the law according to her life-is-suffering principles. She might just as well have said, You do not laugh, love, or have fun. Dancing at Lughnasa, an adaptation of Brian Friel's Tony Award-winning play, follows Kate's principles all too scrupulously. It's a tale of loneliness and repression that is itself dismally repressed sodden and static, strung together out of limp anecdotes, too enervated (or just plain wimpy) to depict the rage that bubbles up out of a lifetime's excess of dainty civility.
This is the sort of movie in which one sister will murmur something about how nice it would be to attend the local dance, and Kate will look at her as if she had just suggested holding an orgy in church. Friel was obviously going for a Chekhovian flavor, but what Dancing at Lughnasa is missing, at least as a movie (I never saw it on stage), is Chekhov's underlying life force the dramatic charge of people reconnecting, however tragically, to the emotions that have been stomped out of their lives. (It's that same charge that Maggie Smith brought to her great spinster heroines in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.) Streep, who gave a robust theatrical performance as the dying homemaker of One True Thing, is back to letting her cool technique softly cadenced brogue, etc. do the acting for her. Of course, any film called Dancing at Lughnasa is certain to contain a big dance scene, and this one does, but it's a doozy of unintentional absurdity. When the sisters finally let down their hair and kick up their clogs, their celebration, which is meant to send us out feeling good, is so gratuitously exultant that it's as if the cast of a leaden production of Three Sisters had suddenly turned into a Michael Flatley kick line. D+