The novel “Ethan Frome” written by Edith Wharton in 1911 was often required reading when I was in high school. I believe this film captures the angst as well as the beauty of this story about a doomed love affair at the turn of the century.
Edith Wharton - Wikimedia
When a young pastor, Reverend Smith, comes to his new parish in the New England town of Starkfield, he is curious about the severely handicapped man who limps about town, avoiding its citizens while doing his shopping. The town residents seem loathe to speak about the crippled Ethan Frome (Liam Neeson), and the compassionate Reverend offers Ethan a job as his horse carriage driver for 50 cents a week. After a visit to the Frome home, where Pastor Smith meets the other residents, we are made aware, in flashbacks, of the events of twenty-five years ago, leading to the present circumstances in the Frome household.
The flashback reveals that young Ethan’s mother had just passed away, having been cared for during the past year by Zeena Pierce, a hired girl (Joan Allen). After the funeral, it seems only fitting that Ethan and Zeena should marry since they occupy the same house. Zeena, however, slowly morphs into a delicate, sickly human being with a variety of illnesses. It becomes necessary to have Zeena’s cousin, Mattie Silver (Patricia Arquette), come to live with them to take care of the household chores and to look after Zeena in her sensitive condition. Mattie is a young, attractive girl, quite the opposite of Zeena, who has few skills but is willing to learn.
Liam Neeson - Wikimedia
The Fromes live on a farm which provides them with a meager existence. Ethan works hard for the little money they have just to keep going. Zeena’s unhappiness is obvious as she chides Ethan for his shortcomings. Mattie is allowed to attend a neighborhood dance once a week to meet some young folks, and Ethan drops her off and picks her up. His fascination with Mattie is evident as he watches her dance across the floor with a smile on her face. He chides her playfully for attracting the young men at the dance, but Mattie insists that none of them interest her.
When Zeena hears about a competent doctor in another town, she decides to make an appointment with him which will necessitate her staying away from home overnight. Ethan relates that a man in town owes him $30 for hauling lumber, which Zeena claims as her own to pay the doctor. As it happens, Ethan’s customer is unable to pay him for quite some time. Zeena nevertheless keeps her appointment, adding to Ethan’s unpaid bills and frugal living.
Joan Allen - Wikimedia
While Zeena is Away
With Zeena away, Mattie makes a special dinner for Ethan, who compliments her on her cooking skills. Mattie tears up, stating that nobody ever compliments her even though she has other skills, such as playing the piano and singing. She sings a little ditty for Ethan, who is charmed by her graces. Mattie has set the table with special dishes from the cupboard, including a treasured pickle dish which was a wedding present to Zeena from her aunt. Sadly, the cat jumped up on the table and the pickle dish came crashing to the floor. Mattie was heartsick, but Ethan said they could go into town and get some glue; Zeena would never notice it. He put the pieces back together as best he could and set it back in the cupboard.
Ethan and Mattie took a trip into town to purchase some glue, causing a bit of a stir when the town ladies see them together, knowing that Zeena is out of town. By now, it is apparent to the viewer that Ethan and Mattie have fallen in love. The sexual tension between them is obvious. Mattie mentioned that she always wanted to go coasting in the snow, and Ethan promised to take her one day very soon. Zeena arrived home earlier than they expected, shortening the blissful time they had alone together.
The Broken Pickle Dish
When Zeena put away her new medicines in the cupboard, the broken pickle dish came crashing to the floor. Although Ethan blamed the cat for the accident, Mattie admitted that she had used the pickle dish to make their dinner table pretty. This allowed Zeena an excuse to get rid of Mattie, whom she had already suspected of alienating Ethan’s affections. Zeena wanted her out of the house, and to add insult to injury, demanded that she should examine Mattie’s suitcase before she left, lest she take any items from their home. Zeena had arranged for their handyman to drive Mattie to the train station, but Ethan insisted that he would take her.
Patricia Arquette - Wikimedia
On their way, Ethan reminded Mattie that they had planned to go coasting, and he would keep his promise. Mattie did not mind being late for her train because she had no other home to go to. They talked about going away together; Ethan stated that he would send Zeena money and she could keep the farm going. He loved Florida and would like to take Mattie there. They both realized it was an impossible situation; they could not be together. They took three runs down the hill, holding onto each other for the last time. Yes, there was an accident, causing Ethan to have a severe limp for the rest of his days. But I was startled at the ending which I did not anticipate.
The film did not keep to the novel rigidly. A few minor details were added or subtracted. The narrator in the novel was a mere visitor to the town; whereas Reverend Smith, the new Pastor, narrated the story in the film, having a more intimate connection with the Fromes. An innuendo of suicide was present in the novel, but omitted in the film.
I loved the story. Liam Neeson was such a believable Ethan Frome. Joan Allen did a marvelous job of portraying the hypochondriacal Zeena. Perhaps Patricia Arquette was a bit too pretty and too modern looking to play the waif she was meant to be. All in all, however, the story did have a redeeming quality, endorsing the fact that evil cannot triumph over good, although the story is fraught with intimations of mental illness, poverty, illicit love, gossip, and jealousy.
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