"The Last September" skillfully weaves a somber yet sensual mood, but it's hard to connect to the people wrapped within. This debut film from innovative British stage director Deborah Warner savors every sensory detail of its milieu: the world of the Anglo-Irish, threatened as "The Troubles" escalate during 1920. Political details, deemed superfluous to psychological realities, stay remote.
The film's meandering, melancholy atmosphere is a reflection of Elizabeth Bowen's original 1929 novel, which also took a resolutely apolitical approach in setting a coming-of-age tale against the backdrop of bloody rebellion in Ireland.
Like the novel, Ms. Warner's adaptation looks at the ways love is warped by war. Keeley Hawes plays Lois Farquar, an all-but-orphaned 19-year-old living in County Cork with her aunt and uncle, Sir Richard and Lady Naylor, formidably played by Michael Gambon and Maggie Smith.
The Naylors are part of the ascendancy, a class of Protestant Anglo-Irish aristocrats native to Ireland but also loyal to England. The British army protects their vast estate, Danielstown, shielding their tea and tennis parties from the guerilla warfare beyond the gates. As their circle of privilege tightens and talk of revolution escalates in the villages, these wealthy guardians of British rule try to sink deeper into their bower of luxury.
Within the bubble, Lois' ripening sexuality and a convergence of visiting friends raise the temperature. British houseguests Hugo (Lambert Wilson) and Francie (Jane Birkin) are both made uneasy by the presence of Hugo's old flame, the London "vamp" Marda (Fiona Shaw).
The Naylors are detached but severe, and their snobbery will not be compromised. British Captain Gerald Colthurst (Jonathan Slinger) adores Lois, but is coldly rebuffed by Lady Naylor when he seeks her support for a marriage. Lois is only toying with him anyway; she's got another man with a gun in the rebel Peter Connolly (Gary Lydon), whose dangerous air attracts her.
Ms. Warner fosters a foreboding aura with wan bluish light, overcast skies and an atmosphere of inchoate menace so overpowering that one feels simultaneously relieved and cheated by the story's vague conclusion.
Violence erupts from time to time, but the consequences for the Naylor clan and their ilk were more severe not only in Ms. Bowen's novel, but also in reality. In 1921, the rebels were to burn such Anglo- Irish mansions as Danielstown. Whether one knows this or not, it's hard to accept the diffuse petering-out of all the foreshadowing in "The Last September."