Sometimes, a dance is more than a simple series of steps. To the sisters of "Dancing at Lughnasa" -- director Pat O'Connor's adaptation of Brian Friel's stage play -- it's fleeting liberation from the spiritual prison of their lives in 1930s Ireland, a stagnant existence that offers few reasons to dance and fewer suitable partners.
Left to fend for themselves in a largely manless world, the Mundy sisters are working women by proxy, not choice. Teacher Kate (Meryl Streep) is a culturally and theologically conservative disciplinarian whose status as the family breadwinner leaves the maintenance of their household to Maggie (Kathy Burke), Agnes (Brid Brennan), Rose (Sophie Thompson) and Christina (Catherine McCormack). Having long since given up on her romantic yearnings, Kate has retreated into a devotion to tradition she's not always successful in imposing on her kin.
Their precarious relationship is further tested when two men arrive who threaten to shatter Kate's Old World order. Their brother, Jack (Michael Gambon), has spent 25 years in Africa as a missionary, but it's obvious that his adoption of that continent's "pagan" trappings won't help Kate reinforce her Catholic teachings. At least she still loves him; she feels nothing but spite for Gerry Evans (Rhys Ifans), Christina's vagabond ex-beau and the father of her illegitimate son, Michael (Darrell Johnston). Gerry's sudden but temporary reappearance reminds the Mundys that they have little chance of escaping their world.
O'Connor wisely expands the play's single interior setting with just enough scenes of the Irish countryside. (Any more would have defeated the story's central conceit -- the sisters' inability to travel beyond their limited horizons.) However, he downplays some of Friel's stronger metaphors, including a malfunctioning radio that's intended to represent Christina's and Gerry's on-and-off relationship.
Though it has been moved to the final act, the story's keynote sequence is still a wild, dancing frenzy that suddenly overtakes all five sisters. When the momentary catharsis is over, the camera pans across their faces, revealing the exhilaration, vindication and shame that the act of shuffling their feet has raised. In varying degrees, Kate and her clan understand that they can move all they want, but they still aren't going anywhere.