'Ethan': The things he won't do for love

March 26, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

If there were an Oscar for funny walks, I'm sure Liam Neeson would win it for "Ethan Frome." His version of a post-accident sinner punished by God is something to behold in the new version of the old Edith Wharton classic. He looks as though he's beeIf there were an Oscar for funny walks, I'm sure Liam Neeson would win it for "Ethan Frome." His version of a post-accident sinner punished by God is something to behold in the new version of the old Edith Wharton classic. He looks as though he's been genetically crossbred with an English longbow, but the bend in him is somehow latitudinal, not longitudinal. He's bent sideways, in other words, and I have no idea how he got his knee to flex in that direction.

Suffering for your art is fine, but the audience shouldn't be in pain, too.

As its readers will know, "Ethan Frome" is as flinty as the New England hills against which it's set, and as dour and grim and remorseless as a November drizzle. John Madden the director -- not, one presumes, John Madden the football commentator -- certainly doesn't try to turn it into musical comedy. He turns it into something that is flinty, dour, grim and remorseless. He's as true to his materials as he can be.

The story is conceived as a rebuke to a peppy liberal minister (Tate Donovan) who shows up in the snow-dusted village of Starkville in the year 1911 with brimming eyes, a compassion complex the size of Rhode Island, and the youthful belief that anybody can be helped by love and charity. He spies Ethan crab-walking bitterly through the snow, an excommunicant from the human condition, and wastes much energy and time and several gallons of the warm milk of human kindness attempting to stir him from his cocoon of self-loathing. Finally, irritated at this pup's foolishness, wise Mrs. Hale (Katharine Houghton) tells him the story of Ethan, the point of which is that character is fate and that some people just can't be helped.

It ain't purty, as they say in New Hampshire. Ethan, once a strapping young buck (Neeson, sans limp, looks as if he could start at tight end for most of the NFL teams) with bright ideas of being an engineer, instead fell in love with and married the farm girl who took care of his dying mother. Zeena (Joan Allen) soon, however, turned into a hypochondriac, vengeful and domineering. Allen isn't nearly mean enough for the role. She should snarl where she merely sneers and snap where she merely tuts. Still, Ethan is a dutiful soul, and cannot conceive of any other fate and so resigns himself to a life of misery.

Zeena gets sicker and sicker, at least in her mind; a few years later, when she can no longer care for the house, she sends for a distant female cousin who had been orphaned. Really. Did these people know nothing of the human heart or the flow of human hormones? Are we talking big-time stupid, or what?

Ethan and Mattie (bubbly Patricia Arquette) take an instant shine to each other, and Zeena is so sunk in her self-imposed misery she fails to notice the throbbing vibrations as they fill the air like the beat beat beat of a jungle tom-tom.

Zeena even goes off to try a new doctor, leaving Ethan and Mattie home alone. What must happen does happen. But the sin of Ethan isn't his supposed immorality but his gutlessness. Like the English genius E. M. Forster, Wharton's sympathies are for the spontaneity of love as opposed to the press of social convention. She loathes Ethan and mourns him for his zTC cowardice. Then she really wrecks him. Ethan can't find the nerve to do what he must; he is punished, as are all who ride with him. In a sled, as it were. Down a hill.

The principals are earnest and professional; the snowy penury of rural New England and the crushing weight of Puritanism are all gamely evoked. The movie should be good. It isn't. It just feels ridiculous. Madden and screenwriter Richard Nelson haven't adapted it, they've preserved it in amber, like an insect from another age. It's as if they've gone back to 1911 with a Technicolor camera and filmed it literally. It's interesting, I suppose, as anthropology, but it's dead as art. It has no resonance. Its time has passed, thank God.

"Ethan Frome"

Starring Liam Neeson and Patricia Arquette.

Directed by John Madden.

Released by Miramax.

... **

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