The Unromantic Ballroom of Romance – Arts Research Paper
In his beautiful, award-winning drama The Ballroom of Romance, Pat O’Connor brilliantly exudes the gloominess and individual hopelessness of Irish life in the 1950’s. Unlike previous films such as The Quiet Man (1952) and Far and Away (1992), the film approaches Irish life from a non-romantic perspective. Rather than portray Ireland as a fantastic, scenic refuge from modernization,
The Ballroom of Romance demonstrates the actual loneliness and silent torture of rural Irish life during this time.
It is rare to find a movie that allows one to delve into the same emotions as the characters within it, but Pat O’Connor achieved this feat when he presented us with the characters in The Ballroom of Romance. Our main focus is placed upon Bridie, a thirty-six year old farmwoman who has frequented the so- called ballroom for twenty years. O’Connor lets us into her life by showing the busy but bland farm work-day, and he does so in a way which manages to exhaust the viewer as we feel tired for Bridie who has so much work to do considering her father is handicapped. The written version of Ballroom also adds to the drama for we enter Bridie’s mind and have a glimpse of her personal desires and wished to be let out of her cage and allowed to have a normal life. The expressionless face she carries about in the film though, is sufficient in portraying her dreary outlook on life.
The lighting is dark around the farmhouse where we are constantly reminded of hard labor and soil. Films such as The Quiet Man depict farmhouses to be cozy on green, grassy hills where there is deep romantic Irish cheeriness occurring. In Ballroom, we are reminded that this is everyday Irish life and the overall mood is harsh and labor-intensive. Repetition is a key factor in this life where Bridie has accustomed herself to doing things on certain days and not thinking much of the work she has to do. It simply just has to be done. There is one shred of hope for this woman’s life to improve, which is the weekly, Saturday visit to the great “Ballroom of Romance.” A change of clothes and atmosphere seem to be the only possible cure for the stark life being led the people of these Irish hills. There is a contrasting difference between this type of community atmosphere in romantic Ireland pictures and in Ballroom. Where a pub or dancehall in The Quiet Man brings people together as a celebration of the community, The Ballroom of Romance is ironically quite unromantic. People here compete for each other’s hearts in shear desperation and fear of always being alone.
O’Connor brings the ballroom into the picture by showing its preparation by the owners, the Dwyers, early on Saturday afternoon. The building sits on barren land with no vegetation or other establishments of any kind directly around it. We see both the one road to the building and the building itself; shown at a perspective where it is the only real thing we see within the frame allowing us to believe there really is nothing else around to be seen. This contrasts The Quiet Man which may also show vast open fields, but with blowing blades of grass and blue skies which beckons the viewers to come and enjoy. Far and Away keeps people and pleasurable scenery within the frames as well, even during unpleasurable scenes. Ballroom though, accentuates the emptiness as we see it sitting and waiting to be filled with people we hope will be happy for one day in their lives. After the audience is shown just what an hour typically is like within the ballroom, we no longer feel as though there is a fighting chance for much pleasure to arise out of this location of desperateness. One can not help but feel sorrow for Bridie who obviously realizes she has passed her age and chance of finding someone here and getting out of her regular life. The lifelessness of the entire scene is enough to drive anyone away who has had a chance to leave and thus only the survivors and youths are left here.
The desperateness of the older women such as Bridie and Madge is overwhelming as we watch them endure long dances with men they care nothing about. They do this just for a small chance to be a part of the life some people were lucky enough to encounter. Madge is the most ridiculed of the Ballroom for she is the oldest and makes it quite clear that she does not care about whom she ends up with; she just wants to be with somebody. The prospect of finally joining someone only driving force left behind these survivors. All the people in the ballroom besides the youths are those who have not yet met spouses or found a good excuse to never come back such as emigration. Those who have not emigrated or gotten married are constantly searching for someone with whom they can end their loneliness whether it is through love or a settlement for the next best thing. The “romantic Ireland” films never reveal such loneliness or desperateness, but rather they reserve the joining of the characters to be done by romantic love. There is never cause for the next best thing unless it will work out for the characters to fall in love in the end anyways.
The sadness for our heroine Bridie continues because we see her “next best thing” is lost to someone else. Her desperateness radiates from the intermission scene where she goes beyond herself to recommend eye care to Dano Ryan. Her hopes are shattered when he tells her that the problem was being taken care of by another woman. At this point the audience also feels her pain for O’Connor has managed to convey that there is nothing left out in the ballroom but the three drunken bachelors who are considered useless and for that matter disgusting. Bowser Egan, one of the bachelors, proposes a union with Bridie in a couple of years when his mother has passed for at that point, as Bridie knows, he will need someone to take care of him. Since Bridie has now accepted her age and vowed to not return to the ballroom again, she has nothing left but this last possible chance. The movie is open ended and the audience is left being caught as Bridie is for we hope she will not go through with it but then she has no other choice but to remain alone.
This film really highlights the plight of rural Irish women and the fact that true Ireland is based on practicality more than romanticism. It is clear that people are joined more often for economic reasons rather than romantic love as is displayed by “romantic Ireland” movies like The Quiet Man or Far and Away (where the Irish successfully emigrate but still end up together romantically). Women are not considered fully women until they are married with children and O’Connor’s Ballroom really captivates this phenomenon. The women such as Bridie know and believe they are worthless, which is why in their last attempts at finding some type of man to make them valuable in society are crucial.
The use of dark, dim lighting and slow music or the sounds of a low radio are key concepts in conveying the barren idea of Ireland and the hopeless life led by most of the rural people. No matter how they attempt to entertain themselves, there is an underlying fact that this is as good as it gets. “Happy Homes for Ireland and for God” is a banner that rests over the stage in the ballroom, and as Luke Gibbons comments, the community “shuffles through its paces in the knowledge that even entertainment offers no respite from all pervasive emotional analysis,”(Gibbons, Projecting Ireland…). Though the banner tries to exude cheerfulness and togetherness, it fails in doing so in this place where all anyone can think about is a last chance. The only hope within the film at all rests in the future generations where young lovers leave together and Ireland may be saved. Perhaps in showing them O’Connor raises the idea that emigration may subside and the future can be happy bringing Ireland together again.
In all, Patrick O’Connor’s The Ballroom of Romance aims and succeeds at showing the other Ireland which is dark and empty. This change is new and fresh in comparison to the creation of tourist attractions of green happy hills and romantic opportunities as is done in The Quiet Man (John Ford) or Far and Away (Ron Howard). His new methods have been followed since and real Irish issues are being faced rather than masked over in movies such as The Butcher Boy (Neil Jordan) or even The Crying Game. It is only in this manner can we learn about Irish life the way it really was and why sadly so many people at one time wanted to leave it.