The Last September

Perhaps the most common problem among tradition-of-quality costume dramas, even one as unimpeachably intelligent as Deborah Warner's The Last September, is that the genre tends to encourage artistic complacency. Once a director becomes too satisfied with frilly period minutiae and actorly restraint, the drama loses a sense of purpose and urgency, falling limp under the weight of tasteful decor. Based on Elizabeth Bowen's novel, The Last September concerns the plight of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy during Ireland's fight for independence in the 1920s. But its memorable features are all superficial: gorgeous shots through stained-glass windows and an old spyglass, the vibrant greenery of a lawn tennis court, a crystal sphere that flips the outside world upside down, and so on. Warner no doubt intends these things to carry symbolic value—the fragile glass separating the bluebloods from the forces of history—but she has a much harder time with the literal. Set on an isolated country estate in southern Ireland, the story centers on a wealthy family with English roots that's still considered Irish, which puts it in a precarious spot between the IRA and the British Army. While the older generation, including eccentric patriarch Michael Gambon and his wife Maggie Smith, choose to live in denial, their orphan daughter (Keeley Hawes) gets tangled up with both sides. As Hawes is courted by an earnest British captain (David Tennant) and a darkly intriguing Irish freedom fighter (Gary Lydon), The Last September gets so awash in metaphor that it's impossible to see these characters as anything else. Working with cinematographer Slawomir Idziak and composer Zbigniew Preisner, both former Krzysztof Kieslowski regulars, Warner recreates the era in careful and luminous detail. But in the absence of compelling melodrama, the film is merely a pretty, impenetrable objet d'art.

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