The early chapters of Elizabeth Bowen's intelligent novel "The Last September" are preoccupied with a get-together of family and old friends. There's much description of clothes and furnishings and personalities - and tucked in around the edges, there are hints that all is not as safe and secure as the characters would wish: Is it safe to sit on the front steps after dark? Who's driving that unseen truck down the nearby road? Has someone been burying guns on the edges of the estate?
The movie adaptation of The Last September starts with the same unsettling touch, plunging us into the social details of a bygone period and letting us gradually discover a dark dimension that the characters themselves are trying their utmost to ignore. The impossibility of their efforts lends their story much of its poignancy.
At the same time, one can't help being impatient with a gang of privileged, prosperous people who should be more adept at facing the bluntest realities of their era.
It's 1920s Ireland, where the recent Republican uprising has caused havoc for both Irish and British interests. The main characters are Anglo-Irish aristocrats who occupy an in-between position with regard to the escalating troubles. On one hand, they're fully aware of their English ancestry. On the other, they live in Ireland and consider themselves as genuinely Irish as their neighbors. Most of them would rather overlook the political climate and get on with their comfortable lives. But violence is coming closer to their doorstep and denial is growing more difficult by the day.
As visualized by Deborah Warner, an English stage director in her filmmaking debut, "The Last September" is a deeply nostalgic story that tends to favor atmosphere over plot and character. The acting is articulate in a manner long associated with British movies - veterans Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon are ably supported by Keeley Hawes and other younger talents - and the cinematography is so picture-perfect it may distract from the film's deeper themes.
Some viewers might wish more vigor had been placed into the tale's most dramatic thread - an Anglo-Irish woman caught between a British soldier and an Irish rebel; others might wish they'd pursued the plot's historical angles more directly. But anyone seeking a low-key blend of the personal and the political need search no further than this gently photographed fable.
* Rated R; contains moderate amounts of sex, nudity, and violence.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society