Saturday, August 15, 2009

December Bride (1991)

Winner of 14 International Film Awards

A woman in 19th-century dress stands on a hill, her back to the camera, looking toward the gorgeously photographed sea. She brings to mind many other enigmatic heroines in movies and novels, from "The French Lieutenant's Woman" to "The Piano." Like them, Sarah, the title character of "December Bride," embodies the flip side of Victorian repression. She is a sexual rebel, a servant in turn-of-the-century Ireland who moves into the house of two brothers, becomes pregnant, and defies anyone in their narrow community of Ulster Presbyterians to make her reveal which of the men is the child's father.

What sets this 1990 Irish film apart from others of the enigmatic-heroine school is that Sarah (Saskia Reeves) seems more willful than sensuous, her rebellion one of class at least as much as passion. She insists that her son have her name, and his existence elevates her status in the household.

Thaddeus O'Sullivan, a cinematographer directing his first feature, has smoothly overcome a thorny problem here. "December Bride" is a passionate film about people who seem uncomfortable with sex, an eloquent film about inarticulate characters.

The older brother, Hamilton (Donal McCann, best known for his role in John Huston's final film, "The Dead"), is well into middle age, and full of emotional warmth and responsibility. He is willing to marry Sarah, but she refuses.

His younger brother, Frank (Ciaran Hinds), is the handsome one. He is also the selfish one, who yells at Sarah's mother, "Remember that you are a servant in this house!" That line is among his longer speeches, and it sends the old woman packing, while Sarah remains behind with the brothers. Faced with a neat split between Frank's sexual attractiveness and Hamilton's affection, Sarah chooses both.

The secret of which brother she loves, and when, is kept from the movie audience almost as thoroughly as it is from the community. Keeping things mysterious makes sense; though her affections seem to sway from one brother to the other, the three are profoundly linked. Eventually the brothers battle each other, yet the menage a trois stands united against a scandalized neighborhood.

Bruno de Keyzer's rich photography makes the seaside landscape look varied and stunning, from a wild storm at sea to a peaceful church garden and whitewashed thatched cottages with dim interiors. But the emotional tone of "December Bride," which opens today at the Quad Cinema, is as harsh and complicated as the lives of its characters.

The main actors are exceptional at suggesting, through looks and gestures, the complications beneath their arrangement. Ms. Reeves's stern face and manner suit Sarah's willfulness; even at her youngest and prettiest there is nothing soft about her. Mr. McCann makes Hamilton just alluring enough to entice Sarah, though his natural personality seems as dull as their old wooden table. Mr. Hinds even creates sympathy for Frank, a man whose idea of courtship is to grab Sarah without a word.

A chorus of minor characters, all acted with great impact, define the narrow world that has provoked Sarah. Early in the film, Frank and Hamilton's father (Geoffrey Golden) makes a dramatic gesture that ends his own life and influences Sarah's. Brenda Bruce, as Sarah's mother, reveals her character's sincerity even when she is maddening, trying to hector everyone back to religion. And as the minister who tries to urge Sarah and the brothers to make things right, Patrick Malahide is a sad vision: thin-lipped, self-righteousness yet astute. "When the community are offended these are a people with hard hearts," he tells Hamilton.

Hard though she seems on the surface, Sarah's heart turns out to be soft after all. At the end, the film jumps ahead 18 years. Sarah makes a grand concession to society, but she keeps more than one secret.

DECEMBER BRIDE Directed by Thaddeus O'Sullivan; screenplay by David Rudkin, from the novel by Sam Hanna Bell; photography by Bruno de Keyzer; music by Jurgen Knieper; produced by Jonathan Cavendish. At the Quad Cinema, 13th Street west of Fifth Avenue, Greenwich Village. Running time: 85 minutes. This film has no rating. WITH: Saskia Reeves (Sarah), Donal McCann (Hamilton), Ciaran Hinds (Frank), Patrick Malahide (Sorleyson), Brenda Bruce (Martha) and Geoffrey Golden (Father).



  1. Removed cause it was from mininova.
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