Capturing a Leisurely Summer in Haste
Now that we’re post-Labor Day with only a week left in summer, consider this time 30 years ago, when the cast and creative team had to pack as much ingenuity and filmmaking innovation humanly possible into the tight – and tightly budgeted – 28-day shooting schedule of the screen adaptation of J.L. Carr’s novel A Month in the Country (1987), set in what the book depicted as an idyllic, sun-drenched Yorkshire summer of 1920. The tale of three haunted souls – two battle-scarred World War I veterans (Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh) and the local vicar’s lovely, neglected wife (Natasha Richardson) – brought together over short-term employment doing church art restoration and archaeological excavation required a concentrated effort on the part of director Pat O’Connor, whose earlier Cal (1984), a dark romance starring Helen Mirren and John Lynch set against a more modern backdrop of Irish Republican Army terrorism and flashpoint emotion, also relied on a delicate balance of longing and intimacy that couldn’t be openly shown. Location shooting starting August 18 in Buckinghamshire, England, was frequently interrupted by drenching rains, so opportunities for cinematographer Kenneth MacMillan (later to partner with Branagh on Henry V) to capture sunlit splendor had to be seized upon quickly, even if the ground was damp and the post-downpour humidity wrought havoc with Firth’s shaggy hair. Film-debuting co-star Branagh was playing Romeo on stage in London and had to commute daily over an intense two-week period, all while breathlessly struggling to avoid rush-hour traffic snarls. But all that haste did not make for waste: what arrived on screen a year later (screening September 27 at the New York Film Festival) was as tranquil in feel and emotionally passionate underneath the surface as the material required. The fragile states of Firth’s and Branagh’s shattered men, marked by violent nightmares of trench-fighting devastation recreated with quick but potent efficiency, are depicted with understatement and compassion. The chilly marriage of Richardson and her remote cleric spouse Patrick Malahide is drawn more complexly than you might expect. In adapting Carr’s prose, master playwright Simon Gray esteems silence as well as dialogue exchanges. There’s a rehabilitative effect in the communion of these three perfectly played characters, but it is tinged with regret, in the finest and supremely resonant screen tradition of “British reserve.” As summer draws to a close, A Month in the Country, offered on a beautiful Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray, is all things summertime can be: refreshing and reflective, as well as achingly tender and tinged with sorrow. Certainly it is also a rare gem that nowhere near reflects the haste with which it was dexterously crafted. For more on how the film came together, visit this detailed fan website dedicated to the rescue of the film from near oblivion: http://amitc.org/.