1993, PG, 99 min. Directed by John Madden. Starring Liam Neeson, Joan Allen, Patricia Arquette, Tate Donovan, Katharine Houghton.
REVIEWED By Pamela Bruce, Fri., April 23, 1993
Based upon the novel of forbidden passion and despair in the grim, frostbitten rural life of 19th-century New England, the cinematic version of Ethan Frome translates as a rather hollow adaptation of Edith Wharton's vivid 1911 masterpiece. The narrative begins in 1910 as the young, idealistic Reverend Smith (Donovan) arrives from Boston to fill the spiritual needs of a small village tucked away deep in the snowy, isolated hills of New England. He becomes intrigued by the sporadic appearances of a crippled, death-warmed-over misfit named Ethan Frome (Neeson), and the villagers' general lack of charity towards his plight. It is only after his having become snowbound for a night in Frome's gloomy, run-down farmhouse, and through his incessant prodding for facts about him from his landlord (Houghton) that Smith is able to put together the tragic and mysterious history of Frome's past. The viewer is then taken back 25 years previously to when Frome is forced to give up his dream of an education and returns to the family farm after the death of his mother. He soon marries his distant cousin -- Zeena (Allen) -- who had cared for his ailing mother, but the marriage turns sour with his wife's increasing pathological hypochondria and tyrannical disposition. A destitute young cousin of Zeena's -- Mattie (Arquette) -- arrives as a “hired girl” to cheerfully, yet ineptly perform the monotonous, household drudgery that Zeena's “frailty” prevents her from doing. Within a year, an undeniable but unspoken attraction blossoms between Ethan and Mattie which only further propels them into a hopeless situation within the gloomy, claustrophobic confines of the Fromes' farmhouse. The apparent faults of the film lie with Richard Nelson's first-time stab at a feature film screenplay (he is primarily known as a playwright) and Madden's direction. For those who are familiar with Wharton's novel, Nelson's adaptation introduces the awkward presence of Reverend Smith, who is not a character from the original work, and thus seems as an unnecessary plot function in the film. As well, there is a disappointing shortchanging of character development that doesn't fully flesh out the motivational aspects in the Ethan-Zeena-Mattie triangle (perhaps it was unfortunately left on the cutting room floor). On the plus side, however, the principal performers are engaging despite these limitations. Allen is great as the miserably prim, drawn Zeena, and the romantic chemistry between Neeson and Arquette's characters creates a palpable sexual tension which lends a sense of breathless anticipation. The bottom line is if you have read the novel, don't bother with the film. It falls short of doing justice to a great literary piece.