Dancing at Lughnasa is a poetic, rueful story about five unmarried sisters, a defrocked priest and an eight-year-old boy in a small Irish village in 1936. Not a lot happens in this quietly observant family drama, but, paradoxically, somewhere between the creases, a great deal actually does happen. Perhaps it's that paradox which has been winning over theatre audiences for nearly a decade, first at Dublin's Abbey Theatre and later in London's West End and on Broadway.

Pat O'Connor's film, adapted from Brian Friel's play by Frank McGuinness, is a deftly structured memory piece as beautifully sad as it is charming. Some, no doubt, will find the story of the dirt-poor Mundy sisters sentimental, but, for many, the modest adventures of this collection of diverse souls two miles outside the village of Ballybeg in County Donegal will ring surprisingly true. It helps that we encounter this quintet of flawed but engaging women at a turning point in their lives, and that what sentiment there is in this lyrical Depression-era tale is honestly achieved.

At the forefront of the Mundy clan is schoolteacher Kate (Meryl Streep), the eldest, who presides over her sisters with the same quiet authority she exhibits to her charges at the humble village schoolhouse. Lively Maggie (Kathy Burke) is the family's keeper of the hearth. Dependable Agnes (Brid Brennan) is the clan's hard worker and the special protector of simple-minded Rose (Sophie Thompson), who is the household eccentric. And wistful Christina (Catherine McCormack) is the lovely romantic whose illicit affair with the father of eight-year-old Martin nearly a decade ago is still talked about locally.

In fact, it is Martin, speaking from the future perspective of a grown man, who narrates Dancing at Lughnasa, alerting us to 'the beginning of things changing, too quickly.' Those changes include the return from Africa, after 25 years, of Father Jack (Michael Gambon), a missionary in a Ugandan leper colony, who seems to have suffered a breakdown, both mentally and spiritually; and the reappearance of Gerry (Rhys Ifan), Michael's father, a Welsh drifter passing through on his way to Spain to join the International Brigade forces against Franco. Rural as the Mundy homestead may be, the world is closing in. Even more changes are coming, as Ireland edges toward an uncertain future.

This is an ensemble movie in the best sense of the word and it's a pleasure to watch a world-class actress like Streep, who, for all her star quality, blends graciously into the group; the magnificent Brennan, who reprises her role of Agnes after winning a Tony on Broadway; the formidable Burke, who shows off her considerable range, having given a shattering performance earlier this year as the abused wife of a vicious criminal in Gary Oldman's Nil by Mouth; Thompson, whose fragile Rose enlists our sympathies, not out of pity but admiration; McCormack, whose defiant Christina challenges the villagers' moral outrage; not to mention Gambon, often cast as a villain, but immensely touching here as a sheepish broken man.

Toward the end of this rich and poignant movie, which is photographed brilliantly by O'Connor veteran Kenneth MacMillan, there's a particularly lovely scene where the Mundy women give themselves over to dance at the festival of Lughnasa, which celebrates the pagan god of the harvest. It's a magical, intoxicating coda which affirms the ties which exist inside a family and those that connect even a tiny village in Ireland to an entire universe.

--Ed Kelleher