A country being torn apart by revolution. A society in decay. A young woman on the brink of a sexual awakening. Rival suitors on opposite sides of the conflict, their only common ground the woman they both love.
"The Last September" might sound like "Gone With the Wind," but that surface plot line is as far as the similarities go. Instead of a sweeping epic, this adaptation of a novel by Elizabeth Bowen is much quieter, a work perhaps too understated and stereotypical for its own good.
It's 1920 in County Cork, Ireland, and centuries of British rule are drawing to a close. Among those most affected are the so-called Anglo-Irish, wealthy descendants of the English sent over long ago to rule the country. Although to the separatists they look, sound and are considered English, they think of themselves as Irish. As far as they're concerned, this revolution will do nothing but force them to leave their homeland -- a bit of unpleasantness that, in classic British stiff-upper-lip fashion, they'd just as soon ignore.
The film is set on the estate of Sir Richard Naylor (Michael Gambon) and his wife, Lady Myra (Maggie Smith), who are bent on continuing the life of tea parties and lawn tennis to which they've grown accustomed. Among their guests -- Sir Richard's home seems to be one of the last Anglo-Irish refuges around -- are Hugo and Francie Montmorency (Lambert Wilson and Jane Birkin), who recently had to give up their home; Marda Norton (Fiona Shaw), an embittered middle-age woman determined to ignore the encroaching years, and a pack of British soldiers, trying to quietly keep order.
But also on hand is Lady Myra's niece, Lois (Keeley Hawes), who has a spirit too effervescent to be kept orderly. An incorrigible flirt who may not totally understand that she's flirting, Lois has attracted the attention of two men: a British captain, Colthurst (David Tennant), and an Irish revolutionary, Connolly (Gary Lydon). As far as Lady Myra is concerned, neither is suitable marriage material for her niece: the soldier has no money or prospects (a fate that probably awaits Lord and Lady Naylor as well), and the revolutionary is a killer.
"The Last September" asks us to care about many questions. Who will Lois choose? Is Marda trying to re-ignite the affair she once had with Hugo Montmorency? Will Sir Richard ever confront reality? Is there any possibility of an unladylike fight between Marda and Francie? And is there anything sadder to a British aristocrat than the sight of an unkempt grass tennis court?
Feelings are kept determinedly beneath the surface throughout the film, a decision that makes it hard to connect with the characters -- who are pretty much just stock creations anyway. Smith has made a career of playing imperious, slightly otherworldly British aristocrats, and Shaw's portrayal of an embittered old maid who wishes she'd just once said yes instead of no, provides no real new insights.
The sole exception is Hawes' Lois, who careens through the film with such abandon that you can't help but root for her, even if you fear you know exactly where she'll end up. Best known for appearing in several British television miniseries, Hawes injects the film with perhaps more life than it deserves.
`The Last September'
Starring: Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, David Tennant and Keeley Hawes
Directed by: Deborah Warner
Rated: R (Some violence and sexuality)
Released by: Trimark Pictures
Running time: 104 minutes
Sun score: ** 1/2