The Last September (review)

The End of Innocence

Two worlds are coming to an end in Deborah Warner’s warm and involving The Last September. The first is that of the Anglo-Irish, “the tribe [that] ruled Ireland on behalf of the British” for centuries, until Ireland won its independence. The other is the carefree girlhood of 19-year-old Lois Farquar, who’s not so grown-up as she thinks she is as the film opens, and is more grown-up than she wants to be at its end.

The high-spirited Lois (Keeley Hawes: The Avengers) lives a pleasant life in Ireland’s rural County Cork, at Danielstown, the manor of her uncle, the almost doddering Sir Richard Naylor (Michael Gambon: Sleepy Hollow, The Insider), and his wife, the cold and manipulative Lady Myra (Maggie Smith). The year is 1920, and Ireland is fighting for its freedom, but even the battles that rage nearby between the British army and Irish nationalists are little more than a romantic notion to Lois. “Determined to be in love,” Lois allows herself to be courted by a British soldier, Capt. Gerald Colthurst (David Tennant), though it’s more the uniform than the man she fancies. Gerald seems drawn to her dreaminess, though his heedlessness to the fact that she is Irish, no matter how English she and the other Anglo-Irish appear, will be a problem.
Lois and her pseudocousin, Laurence Carstairs (Jonathan Slinger) — he is Lady Myra’s nephew, so Lois and Laurence aren’t actually related — straddle the two worlds of the conquerors and the conquered in a way that their elders don’t. Lady Myra carries on with her tennis parties and teas and Sir Richard with his tinkering while Ireland burns, but Lois and Laurence embody more the otherworldly ethereality of the Irish than the reserve of the British, dancing with wild abandon through the house to jazz records played loudly. Laurence announces lightly that he “should like to see the house burn,” but he knows that when it does, “we shall all be careful not to notice.” And Lois delights in the monkey named Lloyd George that her father (“a bounder”) sent as gag gift, though it startles and frightens their house guest, Francie Montmorency (Jane Birkin), timid bird of a thing that she is.

Francie and her husband, Hugo (Lambert Wilson: Don Quixote), have had to sell their manor, prompting their move into Danielstown, which draws another guest: Marda Norton (Fiona Shaw: The Butcher Boy), an Anglo-Irish who’s lived most of her life in London. Stylish, sophisticated, and a bit of a vamp, Marda fascinates Lois, who longs for a more exciting life than Cork can offer. And she represents another tradition that Lois yearns to escape: the marriage of convenience. All around her are people who married not for love but for money, and Lady Myra is mindful that Lois should make this kind of proper match as well. But Marda has come to Danielstown to see if her long-standing, and mutual, attraction to Hugo still stands. And Lois will learn that there are dangers inherent in indulging passion when she finds herself drawn to the violent Irish rebel Peter Connolly (Gary Lydon: Michael Collins), a former childhood friend now in hiding on Danielstown lands.

That these characters, with their conflicting desires and divided loyalties, are headed for tragedy is clear from the outset. What makes The Last September so vividly poignant is that it never turns a judgmental eye on either side of its many small skirmishes, whether it’s a nation fighting for independence from a ruler reluctant to cede control or a girl struggling to free herself from a paternalistic society that has served her people well for centuries. Instead, it merely presents its complicated world as a given, and lets us follow its inhabitants as they try to navigate clear paths for themselves through moral uncertainties. The past is slipping away for the characters of The Last September, but the filmmakers let us decide for ourselves whether this is entirely a good thing.

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