When a young minister (Tate Donovan) arrives in a turn-of-the-century New England town, he is taken aback by the tight-lipped rural community's chilly treatment of Ethan Frome (Liam Neeson), a poor, lame farmer. The minister's landlady tells him the startling story of this man whose spirit and body have both been broken.
Following the death of his mother, Ethan marries Zeena (Joan Allen), a cousin who had served as a caretaker for them. She's a cold and ill-tempered woman who develops into a full-fledged hypochondriac. Unable to handle chores, Zeena takes in her orphaned cousin Mattie (Patricia Arquette) as a housekeeper. This charming and vibrant young woman soon becomes Zeena's doormat.
Although both Mattie and the emotionally remote Ethan lack the words to describe their attraction to one another, they have an opportunity to be together alone when Zeena visits a doctor in another town. Like two flowers who have never had the chance to bloom, they express their love. However, when Zeena discovers what has happened she sets in motion an event which will leave them all trapped together in mutual misery.
Edith Wharton wrote Ethan Frome in 1911 and it remains one of her most popular novels. John Madden has perfectly cast this stark drama which unfolds from a spare screenplay by Richard Nelson. Shot in Vermont, the harsh rural landscape comes across as another character in the story.
On one level, Ethan Frome can be interpreted as an adult fairy tale where the wicked witch wins and the lovers do not live happily ever after. On a more serious level, as literary critic Lionel Trilling has suggested, the story examines what happens to individuals who are hobbled by "the morality of inertia." The lovers lack both the courage and the conviction to forge a new life for themselves, thanks to their subservience to community standards. Their fear dooms them to the routine, death-in-life existence that they so desperately yearned to transcend. The real moral of Ethan Frome is follow the imperatives of your heart or risk losing your soul.