By Karen Butler
Actress Fiona Shaw says the opportunity to work with actors she has always admired, as well as the chance to make a movie that reveals a rarely seen side of Ireland, were the main reasons she accepted the role of Marda Norton in the new movie “The Last September.”
“Very few films are about the existence of, much less the demise of, the Anglo-Irish,” Shaw, who starred in the film “The Butcher Boy,” said of her latest effort.
Noting how movies like “Michael Collins” glorified the struggles and triumphs of the underdog, Shaw said: “It is unusual to see a novel, and then a film, about the ‘overdog,’ as it were, and I think it is a great sign of health, actually, that so near the end of these Troubles are we that we can look at the other person’s point of view as well.
“The Anglo-Irish were not necessarily entirely a terrible story in the history of Ireland. I mean, they symbolized a terrible period of Irish history, but they themselves, as people, were not necessarily awful. I think the book and the film [of “The Last September”] investigate that and celebrate that.”
The film is based on the novel by Elizabeth Bowen and was directed by a long-time friend and collaborator of Shaw, the stage director Deborah Warner.
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The first-time feature filmmaker described Bowen as a writer with a magnificent ability to spin a yarn, and an impeccable eye for detail.
“[Bowen] had a filmic eye, and, if she were still with us, I don’t think she’d be at all surprised seeing her work come to the screen,” Warner said. “She explores the tension between the surfaces of people’s lives and their seething, boiling, emotional worlds beneath. With seeming effortlessness, she combines this emotional intensity with great humor and meticulous social observation.”
Shaw agreed, adding: “She was a wonderful chronicler of the texture of life at a certain moment in Ireland, and she had a kind of water colorist’s ability to capture landscape.”
Set in County Cork in 1920, “The Last September” focuses on events in the lives of the Naylors, a family who belong to a class of Anglo-Irish aristocrats. Their way of life — moneyed, graceful and essentially feudal — is coming to an end as the war for Irish independence escalates around them.
According to Shaw, the film is basically a coming-of-age story about a young girl torn between an English army officer whom she describes as “banal and drab,” and an Irish boy who represents an Ireland that is “rough and not at all ready to become a civilized country quite yet.”
“Neither of them are suitable and she cannot connect with either one of them because she is neither English or Irish. She’s Anglo-Irish,” Shaw said.
Shaw, who plays the witty, independent woman who befriends the girl during this tumultuous time, is quick to point out that this film is not an in-depth analysis of the politics of the time.
“[The movie] can’t sustain too much critical investigation of its politics because that’s not really what it is,” she warned. “It’s about how, of course, these people had to go and that we’re all pleased that they have to go. What’s moving about the film is that we’re sorry in a strange way to see them go, even though, thank goodness, they went.”
The film co-stars screen and stage veterans Maggie Smith (“Tea with Mussolini,” “The First Wives Club”) and Michael Gambon (“Dancing at Lughnasa,” “Sleepy Hollow”).
“I cast the film as if I were casting a group of thoroughbreds who would enjoy racing together,” Warner said, joking.
She went on to describe the fun and creative atmosphere she and the other filmmakers designed in hopes of helping Smith, Gambon and Shaw get into their characters.
“Down the road from the house we shot in was another similar big house — a magnificent house, it was wonderful — and we lived there and we rehearsed there and we did things we had to do there — dancing and accents and whatever,” Warner recalled. “But every night we would assemble around this fantastic dining room and of course Maggie would sit at one end of the table and Michael would sit at the other and so they became [their characters.] So it wasn’t very hard at all. We didn’t really do rehearsals. We just did sort of osmosis. We just became these characters living in this house and that was great
“They are very highly colorful people,” Shaw playfully said of her co-stars. “Maggie had to go into the next room because the carpet color was driving her mad, and we had Michael bumbling off to meet a man about a gun or a dog or something. And Jane Birkin was always phoning home about some endless family dramas. . . . So it was very exotic and yet not at all distracted by city life.”
Asked what it was like to work with Warner on her first feature film, Shaw replied: “She is a great encourager of imagination.”
Shaw likened Warner’s transition from stage to film as making a leap “into the terrifying unknown of film like Jane Austen steering a ship she had happily conceived in the drawing room.”
Noting how she has gotten a lot of positive feedback from movie critics about how beautiful her film is to look at, Warner said: “I wanted it shot in a new way as a so-called period film. More than anything I wanted Ireland not to look like the Ireland we’ve looked at in the cinema before, because we were telling a different story of Ireland and I wanted somehow to find a color palette that matched the extraordinary, rather exotic people that we’re describing in the story. . . . [These people] are the last of Mohicans. This story is about a tribe that had to go for the world to move on.”
To read a review of “The Last September, click here