An Insubstantial Repast

At the beginning of Feast of July, we see a pregnant young woman, alone, stumbling through cold, desolate moors and mountains. She takes refuge in a run-down, deserted shack, where, wailing loudly, she delivers herself of a stillborn child. She then buries the body in the rocks outside and continues on her journey.

Then the film gets depressing.
The actress is the lovely, vulnerable-looking waif Embeth Davidtz, whose last lighthearted romp was as the hapless Jewish maid of Nazi lunatic Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List. Her journey in Feast of July, as you might guess, is in search of the father of the lost child.

Before she (Bella, by name) can find the scoundrel, though, she collapses on the street in a provincial factory town and is taken in by the kindly lamplighter (Tom Bell). This guy has--who'd have guessed it?--three sons, all handsome and, in different ways, all charming. The eldest (James Purefoy) is a nice, stable shoemaker, while the mustachioed middle son (Kenneth Anderson) is a wild and lusty soldier.

Yet, oddly enough, though the film seems to be riding for a legend of the Fall, it only flirts with the theme of fraternal conflict. In the end, the only son who really matters is Con (Ben Chaplin), the sweet, troubled, brooding youngest. After endless longing gazes and stammering approaches, Con proposes marriage to Bella, who by this time is a part of the lamplighter's household. She accepts, and not long after that, tragedy strikes.

Produced under the imprimatur of Merchant-Ivory, Feast of July is the feature debut of director Christopher Menaul. The script, by Christopher Neame, is an adaptation of a novel by H.E. Bates. Menaul sets a good, moody atmosphere, and Neame's dialogue is speakable. The acting is good, especially that of Chaplin and of Gemma Jones as the lamplighter's stoic wife, who's too shrewd not to see that trouble has come to her house in this beautiful shape, yet too maternal not to feel for the unfortunate Bella's plight all the same.

But all this intelligent work is for naught, because the story adds up to naught. It's just a jumble of familiar motifs from tales of this sort, too trite and unstructured to justify all the faux-Hardy moroseness. The film never illuminates any great theme, or even any not-so-great theme, so, in the end, it's just a boring bummer.

Feast of July is perhaps the least appropriately titled movie I can think of--neither summer nor festivity is close to its chilly heart. If this was intended as a dramatic irony, then that constitutes all the comic relief that we're offered by the film.

Another film based on a story by H.E. Bates has arrived in town simultaneously with Feast. This one, the slightly more aptly titled A Month by the Lake, is a comic triangle set at a lakeside resort in pre-Fascist Italy of the '30s. The triangle's corners are a beautiful, high-spirited Brit spinster (Vanessa Redgrave), an elderly ex-military bachelor (Edward Fox) and the stupid young American au pair girl (Uma Thurman) on whom Fox has developed a blind crush.

A Month by the Lake isn't much more substantial than Feast, really, but because it's so becomingly light of heart, it's a good deal more enjoyable. The direction, by the reliable John Irvin (Widow's Peak), gives the film a nostalgic shimmer without losing the pace and edge, and Redgrave, as supple and sexy as ever, does a businesslike comic turn as the sly heroine, a decent, sensible woman who nonetheless isn't too English to act on her instincts.

The only glitch in the film's scheme is our feeling that so attractive a woman could do better than Fox, who seems too great a dullard for either he or she to find happiness with the other. As the film goes on, it truly does begin to seem like Fox would be better suited to the insipid Thurman.

Then, near the end, when Fox manages to rise above his own stodginess only to be stingingly humiliated for it, we suddenly can see the depths of soul that Redgrave sensed in him. The actor paints an unsparing portrait of this lonely and disagreeable old fool, and it is a tribute to Redgrave as much as to him that we can ultimately see him, fondly, through her eyes.--M. V. Moorhead

Feast of July: Directed by Christopher Menaul; with Embeth Davidtz, Ben Chaplin, Gemma Jones, Tom Bell, James Purefoy and Kenneth Anderson. Rated R.

A Month by the Lake: Directed by John Irvin; with Vanessa Redgrave, Edward Fox, Uma Thurman, Alessandro Gassman, Alida Valli, Carlo Cartier and Natalia Bizzi. Rated

 
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