Dancing in the Dark (1986) dir. Leon Marr
Starring Martha Henry, Neil Munro, Richard Monette, Rosemary Dunsmore
By Greg Klymkiw
"I'd like to go home, please. I didn't get the cleaning done."
- Edna's final words to the court before sentence is pronounced in Leon Marr's DANCING IN THE DARK
If there are greater performances in Canadian cinema than that rendered by Martha Henry in Dancing in the Dark, I'd sure like to know what they are. Released in 1986 on the heels of triumphant screenings at film festivals in Cannes, New York and Toronto, Henry's portrait of a woman who finds freedom in her own thoughts, represents the heights all actors in Canada were henceforth forced to aspire to.
Henry raised the bar and it remains where she left it - surely as untouched, unsullied and soaring as high as Edna, the character she plays who is released from the servitude of patriarchal expectations when she's incarcerated in an asylum for the criminally insane.
Twenty five years after Dancing in the Dark first electrified audiences worldwide, it is now, with the passage of time, easy to see why. For all the strides and advancement made by the feminist movement to that point, the expectations placed upon women of a certain generation - especially those within the middle class - remained locked in a 1950s deep freezer.
Subservience and complacency were still considered virtues of womanhood among a generation of men and women - especially within the rigid WASP Presbyterianism of Toronto and virtually any enclave in Canada ruled by a need to live up to the homogeneous perfection (and/or aspiration to) the values instilled in English Canadians by the Old Money power brokers. A woman had to be June Cleaver in extremis and this is precisely the character Martha Henry plays so brilliantly.
Seamlessly shifting from present to future, from internal to external, director Leon Marr leads us through a world where Edna - on a daily basis - provides a perfect home for hubby. She has no voice, no identity, no other purpose on this earth other than to clean, cook, lend an ear to her husband's endless talk about himself and his career and submit, on occasion, to his needs in the nuptial chamber.
Edna worships her husband. To Edna, he is perfection incarnate. Yet, when he betrays her by having an affair with his secretary, the act is shocking to Edna - not so much because of the infidelity, but because, in its very ordinary tawdriness, she realizes how much of herself she has devoted to someone who is far from extraordinary.
Edna has betrayed herself. She's sacrificed her identity for mediocrity, for banality, for the pinnacle of all that is so horrendously ordinary - her husband.
For much of the film's running time, Henry's performance is wordless. The voice-over narration, derived from the journals she keeps in an asylum she'll spend the rest of her days in, creep over endless shots of Edna scrubbing, dusting, sweeping, vacuuming and cooking. Marr's camera focuses obsessively on all the mundane details of Edna's life. Henry retains a pokerface throughout. Her rigidity is what allows for those moments when, through the smallest gesture and in her eyes, we see the gradual breakdown of a woman pummelled by societal expectation. She is, without question, chained to the shackles of servitude, of slavish devotion to all that is her husband.
Even more astounding, is that Henry manages to convey how Edna has, on her own, made this choice and yet, in some of the most exquisite moments ever committed to celluloid, a combination of Marr's compositions and Henry's controlled performance betrays the reality that choices can be made that are really no choice at all. It is a choice of nurture and influence - a pervasive demand set by a society rooted in patriarchy, allowing no conscious room to breathe, to act, to live.
Towards the end of the film, there are a series of shots and moments worthy of Bergman and from Henry, a performance to rival any great piece of acting rendered by the likes of Liv Ullman and Harriet Anderson. Marr, via Vic Sarin's stunning cinematography, places the lens in close on Henry's face and what is revealed is finally so shattering, so emotional, so raw - that we are plunged into a time and place that seems long ago, yet infused with a universality that cannot fail to touch audiences now as it did then and will continue to do so for generations to come.
Some might find the notion of salvation and freedom through madness - especially by the act of murdering the person who represents the reason for the central character's slave-like existence - to be arcane and/or dated. I'd argue this presents a very real, albeit tragic triumph over subjugation. The actions presented throughout the film mirror the suffering heroines of Douglas Sirk (and/or virtually all) melodramas of that period in American cinema where women would often give up everything for their man. This often extended to murdering them in order to preserve the purity of what once was. The difference here, though, is that Edna gives up everything to finally see who she is, who she COULD have been, instead of what she became.
This is the stuff of great drama. Marr employs ACTIONS that are melodramatic, but he renders them, along with Henry's great performance, in ways that are closer to neo-realism. Because of this, it's a trifle bothersome that the only aspect of the film that doesn't always ring true are the endless voiceovers. Edna's prose style in her journals is far too literary (and literal) and from time to time, one is taken out of the drama in ways that make one wish Marr had been far more sparing with his use of the journal readings/writings. What he does/did by draping them wall-to-wall, can be commended for the almost insane audacity of doing so, but watching the film now, there are s myriad of great moments BECAUSE of Marr's astounding mise-en-scene and Henry's perfect performance where one wishes he'd have placed more faith in the drudgery and repetition of the banalities of both the world and character on display.
All that said, though, Dancing in the Dark is a classic of English Canadian cinema that still has the power to shock and move. One of the bravest things Marr does during the final minutes of the film is cut all sound from the track when Edna commits murder. It's brilliant, actually. We see a character find her voice - in silence,
This, ladies and gentlemen, is cinema!
On Wednesday, January 25 at 7:30pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox features writer-director Leon Marr and actress Martha Henry to introduce a special screening of "Dancing in the Dark". The Canadian Open Vault programme is one of TIFF’s most important efforts to make the country’s rich cinematic heritage accessible to audiences.