Natasha's Country Idyll
Without a doubt upon marking what would have been her 54th birthday today, Natasha Richardson (1963-2009) left behind a rich legacy of vivid and affecting performances before her tragically early death eight years ago as a result of a ski accident head injury. Her Broadway work in Anna Christie, Closer, A Streetcar Named Desire and the groundbreaking revisal of Cabaret (for which she won a Tony® Award) and her marvelous movie portrayals in Gothic, Patty Hearst, The Comfort of Strangers, Nell and the remake of The Parent Trap attest to a talent whose glow got more burnished with time and experience. The 2017 Hulu series update of the dystopian fable The Handmaid’s Tale can’t help but trigger memories of Richardson’s haunting work in director Volker Schlöndorff’s earlier 1990 adaptation. Her radiance and emotional allure were present even as she was considered a “new face” to audiences discovering her in one of her breakthrough screen roles in the acutely well-crafted and touching movie adaptation of J.L. Carr’s prize-winning novel A Month in the Country (1987). This delicate story is, in the view of PopMatters.com essayist Lee Broughton, “a low-key and long-overlooked British heritage film… [whose] smallness of scale, simpler nature and sense of intimacy actually enables [it] to establish a look – and a pleasing emotional ambience – all of its own.” Unfolding across the warm, outwardly tranquil summer of 1920 in a Yorkshire village, its narrative follows two shell-shocked World War I veterans, Tom Birkin (Colin Firth) and James Moon (film-debuting Kenneth Branagh), respectively engaged in church restoration work and archaeological exploration, both struggling to become whole again, laboring in the hopefully healing solitude of the countryside as they contend with the mental scars inflicted by their military service. Into the picture steps the sensitive and lovely Alice Keach (Richardson), the wife of a rather stern and dour local vicar (Patrick Malahide); it is gradually revealed that her loveless marriage to this cold cleric puts her squarely in need of healing as well. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby noted a certain undeniable lineage in the casting: “The wife is played by Natasha Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave's daughter, whose presence is mesmerizing and whose mannerisms are uncannily like her mother's. She has that same shyly lopsided grin and that same bold, penetrating gaze.” Watching the film now, and reflecting on the actress’ untimely death cutting short the potential of more powerful performances, it’s hard to remain unaffected by the growing attraction between Birkin and Alice that promises an uplifting emotional release but doesn’t work out in conventional movie romance terms. “The communication of their unspoken love for each other via facial expressions, tone of voice and body language,” Broughton writes, “is beautifully played by Firth and Richardson.” To immerse yourself in a skillfully directed (by Pat O’Connor), adapted (by Simon Gray), photographed (by Kenneth McMillan) and scored (by Howard Blake) journey that showcases, among many gemlike performances, the exquisite skill of birthday honoree Natasha Richardson, make time for A Month in the Country, (available here: http://www.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/29261/A-MONTH-IN-THE-COUNTRY-1987/) on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.