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Review: Conor McPherson’s ghostly tone poem “The Eclipse”

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How eerie it is, late at night, lying in bed in an empty house, to hear footsteps creak down the hallway toward your bedroom door. Or to feel a cold breath stir the hair at your neck when you’re halfway down a darkened staircase. Or to listen to one of those tales told long after sunset, when the storyteller hesitates a moment — after swearing, “Yes, this is absolutely true, it happened to my friend Michael’s uncle” — with his head cocked toward the half-open door to the landing, and whispers, “Did you hear that?” … as if he fears that his words might carry out there, to the ears (if it has ears) of the thing lurking in the shadows.

That’s the mood cast by Conor McPherson in his brilliantly creepy 1998 play “The Weir.” He captures it to a lesser degree in his new film “The Eclipse,” a mix of ghost story, character study and cultural satire.

Ciarán Hinds plays Michael Farr, single father to two teenagers in the crazily scenic Irish seaport Cobh in County Cork. A sometime writer himself, Michael volunteers as a factotum for the local literary festival, which mainly entails picking up famous novelists at the train station and driving them to and from their lodgings.

The worst of these is a drunken, womanizing American (naturally), Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn, above left, overdoing the loud-jerk shtick). The best is Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle, above right), known for penning elegant ghost stories, and whose lovely, placid exterior makes her seem unlikely prey for hound-dog Nicholas. But the past hangs over the characters, and Lena’s includes a one-night stand with Nicholas, who sees it as his right to start things up again (who cares if he’s married?).

Michael’s past includes the recent death of his wife, who may be making late-night visits from the afterlife. Michael is also being unnerved by what seem to be visions of the ghost of his father-in-law, Thomas (Jim Norton) — who is still alive, a resident of a nursing home where Michael frequently visits him.

Can one be haunted by the living? Is Michael really seeing ghosts? And will these spiritual questions be shunted aside by the demands of an awkward love triangle? “The Eclipse” isn’t interested in answering questions or taking conventional dramatic shape. It’s more tone poem than fully formed drama. What makes it work — its elusiveness — also makes it somewhat unsatisfying. But McPherson proves skilled at conveying a mood, and at delivering more scares than most multiplex slasher flicks. (The movie’s “boo” moments aren’t telegraphed in advance, and because they’re grounded in fears and losses based in Michael’s everyday life, they have a true power.)

As children, we’re raised on fairy tales and ghost stories, but our parents reassure us that everything will turn out well. “The Eclipse” gently asks, What happens if we grow up and discover there really are wolves in the woods and spirits on the prowl? And, given that knowledge, what will we do to comfort one another?

“The Eclipse.” Written and directed by Conor McPherson. With Ciarán Hinds, Iben Hjejle, Aidan Quinn. Rated R for language and disturbing images. 88 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

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