"December Bride" doesn't seem terribly ambitious, unless you understand how difficult the creation of an authentic, self-contained world can be. Its accomplishments can seem likewise modest, unless you've seen enough film to realize the rarity of its avoidance of false steps and false emotions.
A film of beauty and restraint, thoughtful, intelligent and completely assured, the Irish "December Bride" is an experience to cherish. The winner of a Felix Special Jury Prize at the 1990 European Film Awards, the continent's version of the Oscars, the fact that it's late coming to domestic distribution is a function not of its qualities but of the perceived feebleness of American audiences.
For "December Bride," beautiful and luminous though it is, does not have a recognizable star or trendy subject matter. And unlike the face-licking, over-eager lap dogs of Hollywood, this is a film that takes its time and keeps its distance, that has the confidence to tell its passionate story with measured dignity and unhurried delicacy. All it has to offer is damn fine filmmaking, and where box office is concerned, that is often not enough.
"Bride's" opening shot, of a woman standing alone on a lonely, wind-swept bit of Ireland, signals what is to come. It showcases the beauty of the cinematography, the presence of the land as a character in its own right, and the centrality of that woman to everything that is about to transpire.
She is Sarah (Saskia Reeves), forced by poverty to join her mother (Brenda Bruce) and work as a live-in servant in the house of Andrew (Geoffrey Golden), a small landowner with two grown sons.
The house is on the shores of Strangford Lough and is part of a fiercely Protestant community in turn-of-the-century Northern Ireland. The rhythms of farming, the harvesting of kelp and potatoes and the keeping of sheep are the stuff of life in this harsh, rain-swept and muddy land, and director of photography Bruno de Keyzer's exquisite photography and handsome compositions recognizes the beauty amid the drudgery.
After a terrible accident sours Sarah on the power of the almighty, she finds herself attracted to both of Andrew's sons, different though they are. Frank (Ciaran Hinds) is younger, moodier and more impulsive, while Hamilton ("The Dead's" Donal McCann) is reasonable, responsible but still attractive.
Though Sarah's solution to this dilemma and the reaction of the community to her choice is the central business of "December Bride," what makes this film memorable is not so much what Sarah decides as the personality traits that shape that decision.
For that young woman, played with convincing passion by Reeves, is a natural radical, a fiercely independent spirit of the type common to literature but not often portrayed this effectively on screen.
"I won't starve for richer folk, there's more to me than that," she proclaims at one point, and at another lashes out at the falseness of conventional morality, mocking the way "things can be smooth to the eye but botched inside."
Lines like that show the originating presence of a novel, in this case a 1951 book by Sam Hanna Bell. As carefully adapted by David Rudkin, "Bride's" script convincingly presents characters capable of fashioning eloquence out of the fewest possible words.
Director Thaddeus O'Sullivan, whose clever short film "The Woman Who Loved Clark Gable" played briefly over here, has handled his material with a sure regard for nuance and gesture that is more than welcome. The result is a small-scaled labor of love that audiences can embrace as much as the people who made it.
* MPAA rating: Unrated. Times guidelines: It includes scenes of loss of life, an act of physical violence and emotional turmoil. 'December Bride'
Donal McCann: Hamilton
Saskia Reeves: Sarah
Ciaran Hinds: Frank
Patrick Malahide: Minister
Brenda Bruce: Martha
Geoffrey Golden: Andrew Echlin
A Little Bird production, presented by Film Four International, Central Television pic and British Screen, released by MD Wax, Courier Films. Director Thaddeus O'Sullivan. Producer Jonathan Cavendish. Executive producer James Mitchell. Screenplay David Rudkin, from the novel by Sam Hanna Bell. Cinematographer Bruno de Keyzer. Editor Rodney Holland. Costumes Consolata Boyle. Music Jurgen Knieper. Production design Adrian Smith. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.
* In limited release at the Royal Theater, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 477-5581.