"Ethan Frome" comes to the big screen just as dark and brooding as anyone who has read Edith Wharton's novella might expect. What it lacks, however, is a lyricism that might soften its cynicism. The unfortunate result is stark but uninvolving.
Still, the central performance by Liam Neeson as the title character is excellent, especially in flashback sequences as we see his tragic story unfold.
Under the opening credits, we see Ethan as a 50ish outcast, limping as he walks through the snow in the barren and bleak landscape near a small 19th-century New England village.
Then, a new minister (Tate Donovan) arrives in town and notices that everyone ignores Ethan, leading the young firebrand to the conclusion that the townfolk are simply uncharitable. So, he tries to befriend Ethan but is generally rebuffed.
Finally, someone decides to tell Ethan's story to the minister, and the bulk of the film is told in flashback:
The young Ethan shows promise as an aspiring engineer but is forced to leave school when his mother becomes terminally ill. His distant cousin Zeena (Joan Allen) comes to help out, and after his mother dies, Ethan marries Zeena.
Unfortunately, he doesn't learn until later that she is an unhappy, incurable hypochondriac — and for the next five years their lives become rather miserable. Ultimately, Zeena decides to bring in an orphaned relative, young Mattie (Patricia Arquette), to help with the housekeeping. But she's not very domestic.
After a year, Mattie and Ethan give up the fight to ignore the attraction between them, and their forbidden love leads to tragedy.
Stately and sometimes rather turgid, photographed with a stark, gritty harshness, "Ethan Frome" has some nicely crafted individual scenes (and a nice Rachel Portman score) but on the whole never builds the necessary emotional connection with the audience. Add to that Arquette's meek performance — she seems rather miscast — and the result is disappointing.
Still, there's Neeson's strong performance, a gentle, introspective and restrained characterization that plays perfectly for this character. Allen is also quite strong, making Zeena pitiable and tragic but never condescending.
"Ethan Frome" is rated PG for a sexual encounter, a brief scene that simply implies rather than dwells on the obvious.