The Last September
Pros: Gambon, Smith
Cons: see last paragraph
Once upon a time (whenever PBS broadcast the BBC movie), I was impressed by Harold Pinter’s adaptation of the 1949 novel The Heat of the Day by Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth (1899 -1973) starring Michael Gambon and Michael York. I found it considerably more difficult to “get into” John Banville’s (1999) adaptation of Bowen’s earlier (1929) novel The Last September, in which Gambon is also the top-billed male. The movie set in County Cork A.D. 1920 did not fully command my attention until the scene in which Maggie Smith (as the Anglo-Irish Lady Myra Naylor) explains to the British captain Gerald Colthurst (David Tennant) that there is no the remotest chance that her 19-year-old orphaned niece, Lois (Keeley Hawes) will marry him. (1) She does not love him. (2) His status is too low. (3) He has no money.*
Unbeknownst to Lady Myra, there is a fourth reason: Lois is keeping company of sorts (bringing him food and cigarettes) to IRA fugitive Peter Connolly (Gary Lydon) who is hiding in an out-building (a mill no longer in use) of the Naylor estate. Lois does not understand that she is playing with fire, even if she is not the one who gets burned (killed). Twice Capt. Coulhurst’s arrival keeps her from being raped by Connolly (that there is a second time shows how foolish the young woman is!).
DP Slawomir Idziak (Bleu, Gattaca, Black Hawk Down) starts in autumnal Masterpiece Theatery colors, but later provides some striking images (and angles) that are less conventional. Gambon’s character, Sir Richard Naylor, is dottier than Smith’s, though more aware that the time of Anglo-Irish ascendancy in Ireland is coming to an end, as she is not.
Also staying at the estate manor (Danielstown in the novel) are perennial houseguests Hugo and Francie Montmorency (Lambert Wilson and Jane Birkin), the voyeur (with a telescope) Laurence (Jonathan Slinger), an Oxford undergraduate who is Lady Myra’s nephew, and (most consequential in terms of plot) London sophisticate Marda Norton (Fiona Shaw).
“The Last September” remains the only feature film directed by stage (including opera) director Deborah Warner. IMHO the first half (-plus) is far too languid. Then things get very melodramatic (Marda has a history with Hugo, who continues to carry a torch for her). Most of the dialogue is insipid. And the people are types rather than characters (for which some of the blame may attach to Bowen, who may have imagined herself staying in Ireland through “the +troubles,” though she was removed to London in 1907).
* Capt. Colthurst is a reminder that officers in “the Black and Tans” or the regular British army were not landed gentry/aristocrats (as Bowen and the Naylors were), let alone the common soldiers.