The debut film by noted stage director Deborah Warner opens
with a scene designed to be alluring and somehow magical. Two
figures–a British army officer, dressed in World War I
uniform, and a girl in a billowing white dress dance down a
tree-shrouded lane. Behind them runs a private, carrying an
old phonograph which is playing the music the couple is
cavorting to.

The only problem, of course, is that the sequence immediately
strikes one as impossible. If the phonograph were being
carried so cavalierly as the picture shows, the needle
wouldn’t stay anywhere near the grooves, and what one would
actually hear is a series of dreadful scratches rather than
the happy melodies which sound sweetly on the soundtrack.

A small point, perhaps, but characteristic–because “The Last
September” expends so much effort looking good and creating a
dreamy atmosphere that its makers seem not to care much about
maintaining narrative coherence or building any emotional

The tale, based on a novel by the once highly-regarded
Elizabeth Bowen, is one of those “end of an era” stories about
a semi-aristocratic family forced to cope with the fact that
their privileged and beautiful way of life is coming to a close.
In this case the family is an Anglo-Irish one on a lush estate
in southern Ireland, headed by patriarch Richard Naylor (Michael
Gambon) and his wife Lady Myra (Maggie Smith); the year is
1920, when British Prime Minister David Lloyd George is
arranging the partition of the island which will result in the
birth of the Republic and the passing of the English-based but
culturally Irish ruling class the Naylors represent. The
estate is cluttered with assorted members of the clan: the
handsome but apparently penniless Hugo (Lambert Wilson) and
his British wife (Jane Birkin); Myra’s nephew (Jonathan
Slinger); old family friend Marda (Fiona Shaw), who’s been
carrying a torch for Hugo for many years; and, most importantly,
Richard’s orphaned niece Lois (Keeley Hawes), a 19-year old on
the edge of womanhood who’s torn between her affection for
British Captain Gerald Colthurst (David Tennant) and her
obsession with a Irish terrorist (Gary Lydon).

It’s on Lois’ romantic entanglements, with their obvious
political overtones, that the plot concentrates. Her uncertain
twisting between the proper soldier and the brutal but
charismatic Irishman resembles a Jane Austen story ripped
from its Napoleonic wars context and reassembled a century
later, without much success. As for the broader canvas against
which the romantic turmoil is set, it’s difficult to rouse
much sympathy for the Naylors and their friends, who come
across (despite being played by such able performers as Smith,
Gambon, Shaw, Birkin and Wilson) as a bunch of lazy layabouts
revelling aimlessly in lives of unearned wealth and thoughtless
indolence. Why we should care if they lose the privileges
that allow them to exploit their Irish neighbors is never

“The Last September” is visually interesting, with nice
cinematography by Slawomir Idziak (“The Double Life of
Veronique”), and the score by Zbigniew Preisner is fine, too.
But despite Warner’s talent and the efforts of a talented cast,
it resembles nothing more than a mediocre episode of
“Masterpiece Theatre.”