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‘Ethan Frome’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 19, 1993


John Madden
Tate Donovan;
Liam Neeson;
Joan Allen;
Patricia Arquette
suggested sensuality

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The public television types at American Playhouse have made a watery gruel of Edith Wharton's popular 1911 novella, "Ethan Frome." A tragedy of wasted lives and romantic longing as written, it has become a wan, rather silly cautionary tale on the perils of forbidden sex and unsafe sledding in late-19th-century New England.

The story opens 30 years after Ethan's trespass on the postcard perfection of the hamlet of Starkfield, snug and provincial in a thick blanket of clean snow. Starkfield's new minister (Tate Donovan) steps from the train and stops to take in the scenery, when a raggedy, twisted figure (Liam Neeson) lurches into view. An inquisitive sort, the minister persuades the reluctant locals to recount Ethan's history.

Once, Ethan Frome had been a virile young farmer with a back as straight as a sugar maple. The novel also tells us he was intelligent and ambitious. Though the movie alludes to his interest in travel, for all we can tell, this Ethan is a dull-witted boob. That explains why he's easily duped into marrying Zeena (Joan Allen), the shrewish cousin who had nursed his late mother during a long illness.

Shortly after the wedding, Zeena becomes a sickly sourpuss. "Caught every illness she ever heard of," observes a neighbor. Ethan doggedly endures her whining and goes about his dreary chores, such as poisoning a hen-rustling fox. His heart, we reckon, is frozen as the land itself. Then Zeena sends for her orphaned cousin, Mattie Silver (Patricia Arquette), who comes to Starkfield because she has no place else to go. And so the thaw begins.

Mattie is as weak as a consumptive kitten and unable to serve Zeena, to cook and clean and pump the water. Then for whatever reason -- it's certainly not the sparkling conversation -- she blooms into a vivacious beauty. Mattie is pursued by a handsome and articulate young suitor, but she has set her bonnet for the dour Ethan. Sensing the unspoken sexual tension, Zeena decides to send Mattie away, a plan with terrible consequences for all three.

The performances are generally a bit overwrought: Allen's Zeena recalls Oz's wickedest witch; Arquette's Mattie might have escaped from a dinner theater production of "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers"; and Neeson seems to think he's the American Gothic Quasimodo. "The Irish hunk" (so called though he is, in fact, as plain as a boiled potato) also has the Devil's own time maintaining his accent. Not that he talks much. But when he does, he sounds like a cross between JFK and Jethro Clampett.

The film, directed plainly by John Madden, also is a cultural bastard, a period piece that does not re-create the social order or its underlying principles. The props may be authentic, but the mores are suspect. Perhaps the story's been unearthed as a warning to the AIDS generation. Ethan Frome is no longer a man torn between self-satisfaction and scruples; he's just libidinally challenged.

"Ethan Frome" is rated PG for suggested sensuality.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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