“That word last is charged for me with the same loss one feels under The Last of the Mohicans or The Last Emperor,” says director Deborah Warner regarding her debut feature, The Last September. “Even though I am a person who tends to be far more fascinated with ‘What’s next?‘” Indeed, given that she has made a reputation over the past decade as an innovative theater director — staging one recent performance in a series of office corridors, another with multimedia installations along the course of a four-hour stroll through Perth, Australia — Warner might seem an odd choice to guide a film that gazes back through historic mists at the Ireland of 1920. And yet, “what’s next” is often most dynamic when juxtaposed, even by implication, against that which has already been.
The Last September‘s central characters are “Anglo-Irish,” a separate community within the Irish population established in the 1600s by Elizabeth I to enforce British rule. They are a culture destined for extinction as the story begins, but blithely squander these last moments creating flower arrangements and challenging one another to lawn tennis, even as troop trucks can be heard rumbling down the road. “They ignore the tigers that are plainly lurking at the bottom of the garden,” in Warner’s phrase, and yet what she says of her multimedia work could apply equally well to their fates as historical castaways: “Barriers are breaking down, and the threshold is interesting.”
What‘s particularly striking about The Last September is the elegance with which thresholds form a rhyming constant in the visual scheme Warner has devised. We’re continually crossing through blackened corridors, doorways and thickets of leafy undergrowth toward brighter immensities of green space. Whole scenes are staged in reflection against the rippling surfaces of windowpanes, or spied through the eyepiece of the young heroine‘s trusty telescope. At other times, when no natural barriers present themselves, filters are used to create bands of darkness above and below, as if we’re observing the world through narrowed eyelashes. Such sharp-witted tactics lift the film out of the bog of “costume drama” and communicate a live feeling of that twilit moment before a sleepy country explodes into civil war.
The British-born Warner, 40, who had long contemplated trying a film but was careful to wait for the right project, was deeply moved by the beauty of the 1920s novel by Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen. “She writes lovingly of this doomed tribe, yet is never sentimental. She is physical, evoking with care how the mirrors in the drawing room trap the late summer light an extra moment at each day‘s end.” Keeley Hawes, who plays the heroine, is indispensable to the bittersweet, Eden-like illusion that every experience — kisses, caresses, treacheries, deaths — of which this young woman partakes is happening for the first time ever to anyone, anywhere. As such, the film required a luminous visual sensibility, yet one that felt more contemporary than picturesque. For this, Warner turned to Slawomir Idziak, the cinematographer whose exquisite tinted filters and documentarian’s clarity gave such force to Krzysztof Kieslowski‘s The Double Life of Veronique and Blue.
Warner laughs that after Sam Mendes won his Academy Award for American Beauty, some commentators marveled as if a theater director with visual or thematic sense is a freakish anomaly. “What is it,” she wonders, “that they think we do?” Her hope is that audiences won’t need to be told who the Anglo-Irish were when watching The Last September — that they‘ll feel the truth of it in relation to their own lives, at this jittery threshold of a new century. “That doomed house and its doomed occupants, all in denial about what’s coming their way, are by no means exclusive to any one period. Even the most stable societies — America, England — lead us to ignore whatever futures are lurking at the far end of the lawn. I think ‘last Septembers’ are happening right now, all over the world.”