December 14 - December 20, 1995

English In Heat

B y  S t a c e y  R i c h t e r


DIRECTOR John Irvin has taken a familiar, tried-and-true formula for his film A Month by The Lake: get some lively, unencumbered characters, dress them up in clothes from the '30s, throw them together in a beautiful setting, and give them plenty of free time and money. When you mix it all up together what you get, of course, is romance.

In this, as in the 1991 film Enchanted April, English citizens gather in a villa to sample the aphrodisiac effect of the Italian spring. Plopped down in the gorgeous scenery surrounding lake Como, with nothing to do all day but swim and sightsee, the visitors fall under the spell of possibility--no matter what their age, or that war is looming on the horizon, love is the most pressing concern. When Miss Bentley (Vanessa Redgrave) and Major Wilshaw (Edward Fox) meet on the terrace, they like each other instantly. But the famous English sense of reserve, along with the appearance of Miss Beaumont (Uma Thurman), the foxy American governess, throws a monkey wrench in the wheels of romance.

And the wheels jerk along for the rest of the movie. A series of contrived itinerary changes and fortuitous comings and goings provide the main source of tension in the story. No one can seem to decide how long they're going to stay at the lake--at first the Major plans to stay a few days, but a flirty outburst from the governess convinces him to stay longer. Though the characters are always threatening departure, it seems clear from the title alone that none of them will leave until the allotted month is up. In fact, there's very little tension in A Month by the Lake, period. It has the feel of an idyll, a pleasant jaunt through the country where nothing can conceivably go wrong.

pix Any sense of movement and story, then, comes from the characters. Redgrave hits just the right pitch with her portrayal of Miss Bentley, a woman whose giggling, girlish veneer barely conceals a mature self-possession. She fends off the advances of a young Italian suitor with offhand grace, and shows a remarkable sense of generosity in her affection for the Major. After the governess treats the smitten Major with casual cruelty, Miss Bentley begs her to "just try to be nice to him," even though she just might be in love with him herself.

For once in a film, the female characters have the more interesting roles, and Edward Fox's portrayal of the stoic Major can be as boring and predictable as the Major himself. At times it's a wonder anyone as alive and witty as Redgrave's Miss Bentley is even interested in him. But as the film progresses, so does the complexity of his character. A sense of his vulnerability emerges as he pursues his infatuation with Miss Beaumont, who clearly detests him. Thurman trips through the role of the party-girl governess with the same disconcerting self-consciousness she showed in last year's Pulp Fiction, teasing the Major for being old and stiff and prancing around him drunkenly. He's willing to humiliate himself by courting her anyway, so drawn is he to her youth and beauty.

The fun in this film lies in the romantic scheming of Miss Bentley, who's convinced from the moment she spies the Major's ears that there's something worthwhile to him. Redgrave and the film are at their best when the lines of affection between the characters are tangled; when, for example, it looks for a moment like Thurman just might indulge the old Major after all. But the movie wraps itself up into a tight little package all too soon--not only does everything resolve a bit too nicely, you can see the resolution coming a mile away.

A Month by The Lake has the leisurely, sun-dappled feel of an impressionist painting; and like the work of the impressionists, it also has a complacent, bourgeois mood. Any sense of the risk of love is muted under soft colors, spring foliage and reflected light. It's refreshing to see a romance between mature characters, but disappointing to find their love lacks passion. When the Major kisses Miss Bentley, it looks more like he's hugging his long-lost aunt than unleashing desire. If A Month by the Lake were a painting, it wouldn't be the revolutionary exercise in sight that impressionism was once considered; rather, it would be admired for its prettiness, like impressionism is today. In other words, it would be the kind of painting you'd buy to match the couch instead of the other way around.

A Month by The Lake is playing at The Loft (795-7777) cinema.

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December 14 - December 20, 1995

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