Friday April 28, 2000
"The Last September," a luminous, piercing film from the Elizabeth Bowen novel, richly evokes a world of privilege on the verge of disintegration.
The time is the fall of 1920 in County Cork, and the setting is a grand country estate of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, caught between the British forces who will soon be defeated by the Irish rebels fighting for independence, bringing an end to British rule in Southern Ireland. Ironically, these wealthy descendants of English immigrants consider themselves to be Irish.
At this particular estate, Sir Richard Naylor (Michael Gambon) and his wife, Lady Myra (Maggie Smith), carry on like the aristocrats of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard."
Sir Richard is aware of what's going on, predicts--and hopes--the Irish will prevail but has not come to terms with what might be the fate of his exalted way of life. Lady Myra, a terrific snob, goes on about her social life as if she were deaf to the none-too-distant gunfire. A guest observes in amazement that she even stages an elaborate tennis party in the midst of war.
The Naylor estate, with its spacious and exquisitely decorated rooms, is also home to Sir Richard's 19-year-old niece Lois (Keeley Hawes) and to Lady Myra's nephew Laurence (Jonathan Singer), a foppish Oxford undergraduate.
The Naylors have just been descended upon by old family friends Hugo and Francie Montmorency (Lambert Wilson and Jane Birkin). We learn that the Montmorencys are impecunious professional house guests in their elite circle and actually have no home of their own.
The presence of the handsome Hugo, who is somewhat younger than the fragile but gallant Francie, attracts from England his elegant, sophisticated old flame Marda (Fiona Shaw), who wants to see if she has any feeling left for him before marrying her rich fiance.
Meanwhile, Lois is being pursued by Gerald (David Tennant), a deeply smitten British army captain, but as "The Troubles" escalate, Lois finds herself increasingly drawn to her childhood friend Peter (Gary Lydon), an Irish freedom fighter hiding in an old mill on her uncle's estate.
Bowen's source novel has provided director Deborah Warner and writer John Banville a considerable number of sharply drawn individuals to interact as war draws closer. The central figure is Lois, a coltish young woman who loves to dance a la Isadora Duncan--as well as the maxixe--across the estate's vast lawns. Lois is sheltered but eager to discover romance and the world beyond her uncle's exclusive realm. She is ready to lose her innocence in every sense of the word, and Marda emerges as the pivotal figure in her destiny.
Marda is further a figure of ambiguity: At the story's climactic moment she gives a reply to a question leaving us wondering if it has been made in innocence or with deliberate malice. In any event, it gives this beautifully wrought drama a resonant finish.
Performances are impeccable in their inflections and nuances. There is a cold viciousness in the Naylors' obtuse snobbery that prevents you from caring what happens to them or to their way of life, and, of course, Gambon and Smith provide the couple with bleakly amusing shadings. Hawes is deft at expressing the occasional awkwardness and gaucheness of the likably naive but imaginative Lois. Tennant, Wilson, Birkin, Lydon and others lend faultless support, but the film's dazzler is Shaw, she of the unsettlingly direct gaze, undisguised intelligence and angular beauty--her features might be those of Mary Astor stylized by Modigliani.
John Bright's period costumes are as exquisite as they are accurate, and those for Shaw's Marda rightly look toward a sleeker future. The film's sense of time and place could not seem more authentic, thanks to painstaking production designer Caroline Amies, and Slawomir Idziak's lush, dark-hued camera work, which captures the beauty of this special world.
By the time this splendid film is over, not only do you understand how these Anglo-Irish aristocrats earned the enmity of both ordinary Irish people and the British military but also come to share this view.
The Last September, 2000. R, for some violence and sexuality. A Trimark Pictures release of a Matrix Films and Scala presentation in association with Bord Scanna Na, Heirann/the Irish Film Board and Radio Telefis Eirann. Director Deborah Warner. Executive producers Nik Powell, Neil Jordan, Stephen Woollery, Peter Fudakowski. Producer Yvonne Thunder. Screenplay by John Banville; based on the novel by Elizabeth Bowen. Cinematographer Slawomir Idziak. Editor Kate Evans. Music Zbigniew Preisner. Costumes John Bright. Production designer Caroline Amies. Art director Paul Kirby. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. Keeley Hawes as Lois Farquar. Fiona Shaw as Marda Norton. Maggie Smith as Lady Myra Naylor. Michael Gambon as Sir Richard Naylor.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times