A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
It's said Alfred Hitchcock wanted his tombstone to read, "You see what will happen if you are a bad boy." The same stone could adorn "Ethan Frome," a film on unrelieved dreariness in which love is erased by its worst enemy, irony. This is the kind of movie they used to show us in high school English class, where it gave literature a bad name.
The literature in this case is a 1911 novella by Edith Wharton (1862-1937), who set her story in a bleak New England village. A young minister, new in town, is struck by the sight of Ethan Frome limping awkwardly through the snow. He hires Frome for his driver, but discovers next to nothing about him until one day when he is invited into Frome's house and glimpses what he thinks is Frome's wife, an invalid, in the next room.
It is not that simple. As Mrs. Hale, the local landlady, retails old scandals to the Rev. Smith, we see in flashback a doomed love story. Many years earlier, Frome (Liam Neeson) married an older local woman (Joan Allen), who grew cranky and bitter, and was a martyr to her hypochondria. Frome labored to wrest a living from the hard land, and was relieved when a young cousin, Mattie (Patricia Arquette), came to work and live with them.
It is clear to us, and soon enough to Frome, that Mattie likes him.