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'The Last September'

It's hard to care about 'The Last September'

Friday, May 19, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Who gives a bloody fig about people who so stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the obvious? That, in large part, is the problem with "The Last September," another slow and stately movie about the British Empire in decline.

'The Last September'

RATING: R for some violence and sexuality.

STARRING: Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Keeley Hawes.

DIRECTOR: Deborah Warner.

WEB SITE: www.thelast

CRITIC'S CALL: 2 stars.


Actually, the residents and guests of Sir Richard Naylor's estate in County Cork, Ireland, know what's up -- the onset of Irish independence. The year is 1920, and the Naylors belong to the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. Their ancestors settled in Ireland like colonial barons. Sir Richard (Michael Gambon) and his wife, Lady Myra (Maggie Smith), consider themselves Irish. Their neighbors consider them British, especially with English soldiers patrolling the countryside on their behalf.

The Troubles portend nothing good for the likes of the Naylors, who know deep down that independence is inevitable. So they carry on as if nothing were happening. Their tennis parties and formal dinners seem ridiculously irrelevant. One character points out that, when the house is burned, "we will all be so careful not to notice."

Director Deborah Warner highlights their isolation by creating an atmosphere of brooding heaviness throughout the house and grounds, sitting above the road that the common people traverse, all but out of sight from the yard. The characters gambol through woods, dine in Sir Richard's enclosed greenhouse, enforce their class distinctions while all threatens to collapse around them.

Indeed, even the audience gets little sense of the struggle going on outside these bastions except for the army officers who come around once in a while -- particularly Capt. Gerald Colthurst (David Tennant), who has a crush on Sir Richard's childishly impetuous niece, Lois (Keeley Hawes). She flirts with him, but thrills to the idea of playing with fire when she happens upon Peter Connolly (Gary Lydon), a childhood friend who has grown up to be part of a group that is killing British soldiers.

Warner and screenwriter John Banville (who adapted the novel by Elizabeth Bowen) are nothing if not symbolic. Warner's direction tends toward the precious, particularly her penchant for shooting through colored filters, for reflected images and those seen in the eyepiece of a spyglass that Lois and others carry around, the better to see things from a distance.

The characters are more concerned with their own personal problems. Hugo and Francie Montmorency (Lambert Jones and Jane Birkin), old family friends who are reduced to relying on the kindness of whoever will take them in, have alighted for the nonce with the Naylors. So has Marda Norton (Fiona Shaw), a worldwise woman who once loved Hugo but is about to marry another man, more for security than love.

As they natter on endlessly, the movie proceeds at a crawl. Troubles? What troubles? The chickens do come home to roost at long last, pretty much as we expect.

Performers like Smith and Gambon are always worth watching, and newcomer Hawes fares well as the conflicted Lois. But their characters are interesting only as tragic figures, and "The Last September" never convinces me their flaws are that profound -- not even those of Lois, who persists in playing a silly game in a combustible atmosphere. These people aren't tragic, they're oblivious. As I said, why should we care?

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