Ethan Frome (United States, 1993)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When we first meet Ethan Frome (Liam Neeson), he is a broken man hobbling around town. The new preacher takes an interest in him and soon learns the tragic tale of Frome's life. Years ago, as a younger and more hale man, Ethan married Zeena (Joan Allen), perhaps mistakenly, as "compensation" for her giving up part of her life to nurse Ethan's mother. Zeena, however, is a sickly woman who becomes susceptible to almost every kind of illness. When she proves unable to adequately keep house, she calls on a poor cousin, Mattie (Patricia Arquette), to come to help. What Zeena cannot foresee is the attraction that develops during the course of a year between her husband and Mattie.

The plot is not intricate. Based on Edith Wharton's novel, it contains elements of many genres -- mystery, drama, tragedy, and romance, none of which are overplayed. One strength of Ethan Frome comes from its essential simplicity. There are no convoluted subplots to muddy the waters. Given the opportunity to focus on three people living one story, the viewer quickly learns who these characters are and what's going on.

The greatest asset of Ethan Frome, however, and the most crucial to successfully transferring the story from the written page to the screen, is the acting. Liam Neeson is entirely convincing in this role. Everything about him, from his mimicking of the injured man's walk to the pained facial expressions in close-ups, shows how in touch he is with the role. Neeson took a serious reduction in pay to play the title character and, as an audience, we are grateful for that.

Patricia Arquette is not the most famous of the Arquettes, but her performance here is more sincere and heartfelt than anything Rosanna has accomplished. She has an expressive face. There are scenes between her and Neeson where dialogue is not needed. They may be an unlikely couple, but the chemistry works.

Joan Allen has the antagonist's role. Zeena is a shrill, unpleasant woman eaten away by a sicknesses of the body and soul. The creative team behind the movie attempted to make her less obviously wicked than in the book. Admittedly, they succeed in providing excellent motivation for her nastiness, but the audience doesn't develop much empathy -- or sympathy -- for her. She is still the villain.

Although free from profanity, nudity, and overt sex, this is not a movie for children. Ethan Frome tells a powerful, ultimately affecting tale of passion, loss, and consequences -- themes that form the core of the so-called "human experience." The material is adult in nature because maturity is needed for the viewer to become immersed in the slow, deliberate magic woven by director John Madden and his superlative cast.

Ethan Frome (United States, 1993)

Director: John Madden
Cast: Liam Neeson, Patricia Arquette, Joan Allen
Screenplay: Richard Nelson, based on the novel by Edith Wharton
Cinematography: Bobby Bukowski
Music: Rachel Portman
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 1993-03-12
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1