A dark elegy for the extinguishing moment of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy in pre-Republic Ireland, “The Last September” is like hard-edged “Masterpiece Theater.” Clearly the work of a theater-oriented helmer in its pacing and the way its points are made, first feature by the celebrated legit director Deborah Warner emerges as a carefully fashioned but gloom-cloaked expression of familiar themes about a dying class of people during changing times. Respectable but not passionate reviews won’t be enough to position this Trimark release as an important specialized item Stateside, but cast and serious themes will give it a comfortable home on TV and on video.
Highly regarded for her stagings of Shakespeare and other weighty playwrights at the Royal Shakespeare Co., the Royal National Theater and elsewhere in the U.K. over the last two decades, Warner has surrounded herself with a team of strong artistic associates and actors on her initial film foray. She strategically plants her visual metaphors and sustains a consistent, if thematically obvious, mood in her evocation of an entire world through the goings-on in a single household. But everything about this adaptation of the Elizabeth Bowen novel is so preordained and unsurprising that the dramatic power of the piece is muted and less than stirring.
Story’s one fresh element is the milieu, that of a somewhat frayed upper class that considers itself Irish by virtue of its long residency in Eire but is markedly British in its habits, language and orientation toward London and Oxford. The September in question is that of 1920, four years after freedom fighters took up arms in their final push against the British Army, and the setting is Danielstown, an estate in County Cork where Sir Richard Naylor (Michael Gambon) and his wife, Lady Myra (Maggie Smith), enact their own rather fatigued version of English country living. Staying with them are Lois (Keeley Hawes), Sir Richard’s attractive, high-spirited but romantically unfocused young niece; Lady Myra’s nephew Laurence (Jonathan Slinger), a student at Oxford, and newly arrived house guests Hugo and Francie Montmorency (Lambert Wilson and Jane Birkin), who are trying to keep up appearances despite being homeless at the moment.
Ripe with romantic and sexual impulses but unable to do anything with them, Lois is given to constant frolicking and dancing through the mansion and the woods, sometimes with an enamored English soldier, Capt. Gerald Colthurst (David Tennant), who could probably advance his cause if he dared. A romantic alternative soon presents itself in the person of an old friend of Lois’, Peter Connolly (Gary Lydon), a guerrilla fighter who is making furtive attacks on the British military and is holed up in an old mill, which Lois takes to visiting with increasingly frequency.
A decisive influence on more than one of the other characters’ fates arrives in the person of another guest, Marda Norton (Fiona Shaw), a sophisticated, self-styled “vamp” from London who is full of witty advice and finally provides Lois with someone to talk to. Both as a result of the part’s vibrant nature and Shaw’s insinuating performance, the film jumps to full life whenever Marda is onscreen, suggesting that the picture might have been improved immeasurably had it been told from the p.o.v. of her character — an outsider who is nonetheless crucially involved — if not, alternately, from that of Lois.
Part of the problem is that, in the conventional approach of scenarist John Banville, none of the other characters makes much of a claim on viewer interest. Despite their top billing, Smith and Gambon remain caricatured background figures. Birkin plays another bystander whose comments are uniformly silly, while Wilson has somewhat more weight as the man from the past to whom Marda wants to give one last chance before settling into a moneyed but unexciting marriage. Story’s dramatic climax is foreseeably tragic, just as the aftermath contains fitting ironies.
Warner’s direction creates the sense that every last nuance has been predetermined, keeping audience involvement in a mostly neutral state. Fresh-faced Hawes, who looks something like a cross between Polly Walker and Kristin Scott Thomas, shows promise. Production values and tech aspects are apt, if not as lushly handsome as in many similar period pieces.