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Tom Collins

Swung Song: Keeley Hawes plays a young girl whose wealthy family doesn't realize that war will soon end their idylls in
'The Last September.'

Wilting Drama

Anglo-Irish aristos face 'The Last September' with stiff upper lips

By Heather Zimmerman

WHEN IT COMES to loss of innocence, war is pretty much the end-all be-all. Perhaps that's why some coming-of-age stories framed by wartime have such power, and why The Last September doesn't. We see some bloody skirmishes between Irish and English soldiers in the film, but we never get a really strong sense of the loss that this unofficial war might cause Lois, the 19-year-old Anglo-Irish heroine of the film, and her aristocratic family. The characters' worldly apathy implies that Lois and her family have negligible innocence to lose.

Based on a novel by Elizabeth Bowen, the film is set in 1920 in rural Ireland and tells of the genteel decline of a group of Anglo-Irish aristocrats, descendants of wealthy English who settled in Ireland generations ago and now identify as Irish. These aristocrats are caught between the Irish fighting for independence and the English trying to subdue them. The Naylors, Sir Richard (Michael Gambon) and his wife, Lady Myra (Maggie Smith), and their house guests (Lambert Wilson, Jane Birkin and Fiona Shaw) are members of this precariously bi-national society, keeping a British stiff upper lip while guardedly sympathizing with the Irish.

Keeley Hawes is likable enough as Lois, Sir Richard's niece, who has been raised by her aunt and uncle. Lois' rambunctious charms have enraptured a British army captain, Gerald Colthurst (David Tennant), but her tentative affections lie with a childhood friend, Peter Connolly (Gary Lydon), an Irish rebel. Lois helps Peter evade the British army, and he rewards her with surprisingly vicious treatment. It's hinted that Lois withstands Peter's abuse because she loves him, but we never see compelling evidence--Hawes' portrayal suggests, intentionally or not, that Lois' attraction to him stems more from youthful rebellion than genuine emotion.

Similarly, the distaste of Lois' guardians, in particular Lady Myra, toward a potential love match between Lois and bourgeois British soldier Gerald appears to come from old-fashioned moneyed snobbery rather than any Irish loyalty. The people around Lois are in no way tragically oblivious or all that regretful that the end of their easy lifestyle is nigh. The family's casual resignation might be denial, but with John Banville's vague script, it seems as painless to Lois' family as shrugging off a loss at a tennis match, which makes it all the more incongruous that director Deborah Warner depicts the tale with such foreboding. She films nearly every scene with the camera peering furtively at the action, from behind foliage or through a window. This device suggests some prowling menace, stalking the doomed aristocracy, but there's a stronger sense that first-time director Warner wasn't sure where else to point the camera--it's more distracting than ominous.

In one of the film's opening scenes, a single petal falls from a bouquet of fully bloomed roses arranged in a vase, carefully illustrating that the glory days of the Irish-English aristocracy have wilted. But the metaphor is perhaps too apt for this film--generally, the plight of this blithe aristocratic family seems about as dire as the nuisance of flowers withering in the drawing room.

The Last September (R; 104 min.), directed by Deborah Warner, written by John Banville, based on a novel by Elizabeth Bower, photographed by Slawomir Idziak and starring Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon and Keeley Hawes, plays Thursday only at the Nickelodeon.

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From the April 26-May 3, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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