Page to Screen: The Last September (1999)

The Last September
based on The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

I was not exactly looking forward to The Last September. My track record with the rest of the Irish films I was assigned last summer wasn’t the greatest, and the Netflix reviews (yeah, this was a while ago!) were mostly along the lines of “great cast, boring movie”. But it was on the list and it had Maggie Smith in it, so I put it on one evening just to get it out of the way. And then I was absolutely enthralled. I love it when that happens.

The Last September is set during the Irish War of Independence. Despite the turmoil around them, the Anglo-Irish aristocratic Naylors remain calm, polite, and playful. Their niece, Lois, spends her time flirting with Gerald Colthurst, a British soldier stationed in the area, and their various assorted house guests—including their homeless nephew, his frumpy wife, and his vivacious first love—are happy to oblige them. But despite their best efforts, they can’t keep ignoring the fact that their world is crumbling down around them.

At the time I saw the film, I hadn’t read The Last September—all I can offer about the adaptation process is that Gerald’s last name is changed. But this film tackles deep issues and themes without feeling like a self-conscious adaptation of a book, which sometimes happens. I didn’t even know it was based on a novel until the opening credits. (I should really research my film choices more.) The wildly charming opening scene—where Lois and Gerald, aided by a friend carrying a phonograph, dance up and down the grounds—belies the rest of the film, which is almost apocalyptic and voyeuristic in tone. Voyeurism, in fact, is carried through the film by Lois, who is more in love with love than Gerald. When he passionately confesses his love to her, she watches herself in a reflection; she constantly carries a spyglass, which is occasionally used for some very creative shots. The director contrasts their elegant lifestyle with the reality around them; one dinner party in particular, filmed from outside the house, is contrasted with the murder of a British soldier, albeit only when the Naylors learn about it. Lois’ post-adolescent restlessness fits in perfectly with the rut the Naylors have found themselves in; towards the end of the film, it’s clear that no one can stay at the mansion and survive with their souls intact. If the film can convey all of this effortlessly, then I cannot wait to see what the book itself holds.

As is usually par for the course for UK films, you probably know everyone in the cast from another film—Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Fiona Shaw, and David Tennant, anyone? It’s almost an uncanny pre-Harry Potter gathering of actors, especially since they actually have scenes with one another. The heart of the film, however, lies with Keeley Hawes, who plays Lois. (I’d hesitate to call her the main character, however, since this is an ensemble piece.) She’s young, thoughtful, and, despite her beauty, at an awkward period between childhood and adulthood—boyish leggings cling to her, danger attracts her, she feels stifled as others plan her future for her. It would be so easy to play this as a flat, doe-eyed ingenue, but Hawes puts some emotional weight into it; Lois is trying to grow up peacefully in a situation that won’t let her. Further complicating matters is Anglo-Irish identity. Tennant’s earnest Gerald is constantly confused by how the Naylors so easily identify as Irish but still promote oppressing the Irish working class. Lois is described as a wild chieftainess by another character, but the freedom she seeks here will destroy her, as she explores a connection with a guerrilla fighter. Michael Gambon’s Lord Naylor is affable and patronizing, and Maggie Smith, as his Lady Naylor, is just so wonderfully natural.

In fact, I was quite impressed by how natural the screenplay felt, especially its dialogue. Again, The Last September deals with some pretty heavy material, which could tempt a poor screenwriter towards bad dialogue. But it’s all so normal, especially as delivered by the cast. It truly feels like spending time with these characters as their world falls apart, as Lady Naylor fusses at Lois and her friend to move off the steps, they’re covered in ants, and Lord Naylor breezes past Gerald’s confusion, having felt like he’s done something. I do wonder how much dialogue is taken from the novel or how much this naturalistic effect is taken from the novel, but however it got there, it works beautifully. It’s also shot beautifully—period pieces from the UK are almost universally beautiful—but with a care to how it can further the story. Scenes are shot from outside the mansion to show how alienated the Naylors are from the world around them, Lois’ spyglass plays camera as she spies on others and herself, and there are a handful of swirling shots that convey all the restlessness and useless, circular motion going on at the mansion. It’s truly impressive.

Bottom line: The Last September is a beautiful period piece that examines the end of Anglo-Irish aristocracy in revolutionary Ireland by focusing on one Anglo-Irish family trying to maintain their lifestyle in the face of revolution. Well-acted, beautifully shot, and effortlessly explores deeper issues in an almost apocalyptic landscape.

I watched this film on Netflix Instant.

4 thoughts on “Page to Screen: The Last September (1999)

  1. Aw, I really like Keeley Hawes! She has a quality that reminds me of Keira Knightley, but I like her way better than Keira Knightley and sort of wish she could have all of Keira Knightley’s parts. :p And of course I love David Tennant at every moment. Yay for Netflix Instant! Just added this to my queue.

  2. Pingback: The Sunday Salon: Celebrating St. Patrick’s with Irish Literature | The Literary Omnivore

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