A ghost story for Christmas, and something timeless for your festive viewing; Orson Welles’ Return to Glennascaul is only 23 minutes long, which makes it a pleasure rather than a chore. Shot during a break on his troubled production of Othello, it’s billed as ‘a story told in Dublin’ but takes the form of a fairly universal trope; a lonely driver who gives a lift to a stranger, who turns out to be something other than just a regular passenger…
For veracity’s sake, we start with Welles, playing himself, and narrating his own story as he drives through the Irish countryside. Welles happens on another driver (Michael Laurence) having problems with his car, and offers him a lift. The driver tells Welles about a mother and daughter whom he once gave a lift to; returning them to a Dublin dwelling named Glennascaul, they invite him in for a nightcap, and a conversation develops about a cigarette case, which the man leaves on the mantelpiece above the fireplace. On route home, the driver remembers the cigarette case, and returns to Glennascaul to find….
The vaguest of spoilers apply, but you’ll know what’s coming; the mother and daughter are long dead, the house is in ruins, and yet the cigarette case is still in place and the driver’s footprints are still on the dusty floorings. It’s a simple story, deftly told, but there’s also more than a little haunting about it. There’s something about the magical appearance of Glennascaul that’s specifically Ireland and Dublin; one thinks of Gabriel standing by the window in James Joyce’s The Dead, and that sense of desolate otherness pervades Welles’ film. ‘His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead”
What separates the living and the dead? In Gllennasacul, which literally means the glen of shadows or ghosts, the lines are blurred to the point of invisibility; it’s hard to spot where reality ends and fantasy begins. As a result, Welles doesn’t tarry with the driver he encounters, and is fearful when invited in for a drink in case he discovers that the driver is also a ghost. There’s a funny punch-line in which Welles rapidly dingies two women hoping to cadge a lift; they recognise who he is and complain about his mean-spiritedness. But such self-deprecating humour is necessary in the face of shadows and ghosts; Return to Glennascaul is all the more interesting the second time around because we know the family are ghosts, and can study their behaviour, which comes up spooky every time. At Christmas, we celebrate the living and mourn our dead; this tiny film captures that unique feeling in a nutshell. This film is written and directed by Hilton Edwards and produced by Micheál Mac Liammóir of Dublin Gate Theatre Productions.
Merry Christmas 2021 to everyone reading this….