Unless you're iron-willed Margaret Thatcher or some other sort of imperialist nostalgiaphile, it's hard to get choked up these days about the demise of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. For one thing, it's now 80 years after the fact; for another, joint government in Ireland remains a dicey proposition and the Troubles continue to kill. Still, the last gasp of the Protestant feudal gentry is the main subject of Elizabeth Bowen's meticulous 1929 novel The Last September and, to a lesser extent, of the film Deborah Warner has now made of it. A period drama in the well-mannered Merchant-Ivory style, it shows us the Old Guard awobble on their last legs in rustic County Cork. It also tells the story of one Lois Farquar (The Avengers' Keeley Hawes), an orphaned beauty on the verge of womanhood, who resists the advances of a moonstruck British captain named Colthurst (David Tennant) while falling under the spell of a swarthy IRA gunman (Gary Lydon) with whom she grew up. Naturally this dewy heroine has scarcely a clue about the political issues that torment the verdant countryside.
All this death-of-innocence and end-of-an-epoch stuff (the setting is 1920) is pretty familiar by now, at least to anyone who takes the most casual interest in Ireland's tragic past -- and its tragic present -- but Warner manages to renew the feelings and the issues. From her opening scene, which reveals a pair of spirited young dancers doing the Charleston in a wooded glen, September is imbued with loss and regret and romantic intention. In young Lois we are meant to find all the contradictions of a time and place -- the urge for stability vs. the attractions of freedom, the uncertainties of political ferment and the excitements of sexual emancipation. Bowen, who has fallen into literary disfavor (she died in 1973), may be in for a popular revival, à la Jane Austen, if the movies have anything to say about it. For some readers, that may be a mixed blessing. Born in 1899 to an Irish landowner, she was a careful, evocative writer but an unreconstructed Unionist. In fact, she's likely kicking in her grave over the revisionist liberties screenwriter John Banville (with some help from director Warner) has taken with her book: In the original, Lois goes nowhere near the IRA man; in the film, she gets a lot nearer than near.
For my money, the most intriguing elements of this engaging film unfold at its edges. Michael Gambon and Maggie Smith, two highly decorated veterans of stage and screen, are absolutely wonderful (which is to say, wonderfully absurd) as Sir Richard and Lady Myra Naylor, the musty old snobs who rule Danielstown, the drafty manor house that represents the last bastion of the Anglo-Irish. Stubbornly resistant to the realities of the world, they stage lawn-tennis parties and elaborate dinners even as civil war rages in the next village and their ward, Lois, gets herself into all kinds of trouble. The dramatic gifts of Gambon and Smith would be enough to keep us fixed on them, but costume designer John Bright (who dresses them to shabby-genteel perfection) and the great Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak (who exposes the decadent charm of their faces) heighten the effects. Lord and Lady Naylor needn't carry all the freight, however. Danielstown is otherwise inhabited by a variety of eccentric houseguests -- Hugo and Francie Montmorency (Lambert Wilson and Jane Birkin), who are properly baffled by Irish politics; Laurence Carstairs (Jonathan Slinger), an Oxford man with a nose for revolution; and worldly Marda Norton (Fiona Shaw), who becomes Lois' mentor. The great social satirist Evelyn Waugh couldn't have dreamed up a more piquant bunch: Lois Farquar may be the heroine here, but she winds up playing second fiddle to the supporting cast.
No Irish-based movie set in 1920 could roll the credits without a jolt of tragedy, and The Last September certainly provides one. But director Warner, a first-timer with an impressive theatrical résumé -- resident director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, associate director of the Royal National Theatre -- resists low melodrama at every turn. For her, the world ends not with a bang but a whimper, and the film's elegiac quality remains perfectly in tune with the tenor and texture of Bowen's novel. It may be hard to sympathize with the ruling class as it comes to ruin, but the tide of history that sweeps over this crowd is full of emotion. Beautiful to look at and nicely made, September just might be the literary adaptation of the year: Impeccably acted by a fine ensemble cast, it's sheer pleasure to behold.
Opens May 12 at the Plaza Frontenac.