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A Month in the Country - Falling Man

Robert Weedon | Film | Monday 28th February 2011

As Colin Firth and the brilliant film The King's Speech cleaned up the masks at the BAFTA film awards, and has just done the same at the Academy Awards, I was suddenly struck by how Firth's award-winning role has a nice circularity with his first lead role in the cinema in the wonderful, (and wonderfully obscure) film A Month in the Country (dir. Pat O'Connor, 1987).

Both are period pieces beginning in the 1920s which chart the process of a character coming to terms with a traumatic event in his past, which in both cases has manifested itself in a stammer rather than any obvious physical affliction. However, I would argue that of the two, A Month in the Country is perhaps the more subtle, a little gem of low-budget British cinema so obscure that for some years it was assumed that no film print survived, and even today is a DVD rarity.

It's always difficult to talk about a film one likes so much, so this review may end up as a string of superlatives. J.L. Carr's A Month in the Country is one of my favourite little novels, and unusually, the adaptation by Simon Gray lives up to the book (and in several instances improves on it). Simon Gray was a name to be mentioned alongside Pinter and Stoppard as not only a great playwright, but also a great adaptor of others' works. Because Carr's work is largely written in flashback, and the film is not, it is a particular achievement that Gray's ear for dialogue captures the right nuances of the story, never wordy when an action can be better conveyed on screen.

It's a film in which nothing particular happens, and yet so much happens, and probably requires several viewings to fully appreciate this. Although fairly short, it has a very relaxed pace, and I know people I have shown it to before have given up on it at an early stage. However, those that have stayed to the end have admitted that they would quite like to see it again. That's not to say it's not approachable, just deeper than it might appear on the surface - think along the same lines as The Remains of the Day. Unfortunately, when summarised, the plot looks a bit uninspiring. In fact, A Month in the Country does everything I would want from a film; it's subtle, poignant, thoughtful. It has elements of romance, tragedy, detective fiction, ghost story, with a wry sense of observation about human relationships and how the past repeats itself.

The film is set in the summer of 1920. Tom Birkin (Firth), a WWI veteran struggling to scrape a living restoring medieval wall paintings, travels to Yorkshire where he spends a summer uncovering a particularly fine, but mysterious Judgement painting in a church. Here, he develops relationships with several characters, each which seem to help him come to terms with his experience.

The Falling Man.

The first is with James Moon, an archaeologist employed in similar circumstances to Birkin, and with a similar wartime experience. He has been employed to find the grave of a man buried outside of the churchyard during the middle ages, but is using his time to excavate the remains of an early Saxon chapel.

The second is with family of the local station master, Mr Ellerbeck.1 The Ellerbecks, coming from a non-conformist background, are much more welcoming than the vicar of the church, Rev. J.G. Keach, who opposes the uncovering of the painting and makes his dislike of Mr Birkin's work and presence quite plain. The third is with Alice Keach, the beautiful wife of the vicar, who represents the unattainable; her character is always represented by apples and roses.

As the director, producer and Colin Firth stated during a recent screening of the film, the title of the book (and therefore the film) is awful, being easily confused with the Turgenev play of the same name. Simon Gray's working title, and the name it should have been called, is "Falling Man". This is a brilliant title, with so many clever connotations, both with the characters, the man in the wall painting, the supposed demise of the painter, the imagery of apples and temptation; in fact, the whole story and what it represents.

Sadly, J.L. Carr refused to allow it to be changed, and the boring and inaccurate name coupled with its misleading marketing slant, has hung around its neck labelling it as some sort of bucolic romance rather than as a serious examination of the effects of the First World War, a comparison between medieval crusades with post-World War I rural society and its corresponding fallout, a study of the hypocrisy of religion in both the past and then-present.2

A Month in the Country is perhaps best noted today for its cast, full of now-famous names for whom this was their first major role; Firth, Branagh, Richardson.

Firth is especially good here, getting the fragility of his character just right. He only stammers when he is confronted or annoyed; his first meeting with Keach is awkward; the pouring rain, heavy string music and grey colours of the cinematography contribute to the feeling of this awkwardness and burden, and his insecurity as a Londoner, being out of his comfort zone in the country ("Oxgodby...").

The revelation of the sunlit Yorkshire idyll the following morning is first seen almost blindingly by his character as the light breaks onto his face as he draws the belfry curtain. The yellow-tinged sunlit tone of the cinematography remains for the rest of the film. After this, his stay in the country presents him with a range of possibilities; a friendship, acceptance into a family, the intangible air of romance, all giving his character the chance to rehabilitate himself.

As he slowly reveals the painting over the summer, we learn about his character and his counterpart, James Moon. We start to see comparisons between their own experience and that of the men they are attempting to reveal; the painter (a worker figure) for Birkin and the excommunicated knight (officer) for Moon.

Perhaps one of the finest scenes in the film is when Birkin, rather like the King he was to play 20 years later, is forced against his better judgement to make a speech. In this case, Birkin is persuaded by the children of Mr Ellerbeck to preach a sermon in a small village chapel, to a tiny congregation. However, like George VI in The King's Speech, after initially attempting to unsuccessfully follow the style of another person, and coming unstuck with nerves and his stammer, Birkin eventually decides to preach as himself, and in doing so delivers a heartfelt and cryptically metaphoric sermon to the small congregation.

I can't preach...so all I can do is tell you about what I'm up to in Oxgodby, in the church there. Well, I'm cleaning the wall, because behind the dirt and layers of paint...there's a...picture. So there I am up there scraping away until I get back to the picture itself...patient sort of work, but I don't get any second chances, that's what makes it so exciting. One dab too few and some poor chap won't get back from five centuries ago , one dab too many, wiped him out forever... Makes me sound rather like God doesn't it? Though really I'm just a servant, like every one of us except I'm the servant of the painter. I hope I'm good enough to serve this painter, for he deserves the very best of servants.
A little throwaway comment later on hints that the children didn't really understand his symbolism, however, a nice piece of observation by Carr.

One of the major themes is of a void between the Church of England, the non-conformist church, and agnosticism engendered by the war. Earlier in the film, a memorable scene is of Birkin looking down commenting on a dull Sunday service from his belfry room, just above the Last Judgement painting he is uncovering with a rather severe-looking Christ just revealed at the centre. The vicar, Rev. J.G. Keach dispassionately reads from Matthew 25 in his sermon.

Look behind you, Keach. That's what you're praying to. He doesn't want your prayers, he wants some answers. Did you feed the hungry? Did you give drink to the thirsty? Did you cloth the naked and needy? What about me, eh? Any of you offer me bed and board? You smug Yorkshire lot. I'll have a word with him about the way you treated me. I'll get you yet.
Later in the film, Keach decries how he feels the congregation do not take him, or his message seriously. However, as we've encountered something of Birkin's personal experience at the time through several encounters during his summer, the vicar's complaint seems almost pathetic by comparison.

The relationship between Birkin and Alice Keach is another important aspect of the film, although not, as the poster suggests, the main focus. I don't want to go into this part any further for fear of spoiling it, but I personally find it one of the most convincing portrayals of regret and the intangibility of love I've seen. The "Way through the woods" part is especially haunting.

Speaking of haunting, my assertion that it owes something to the ghost story genre is largely based on the mystery aspect of the medieval figure, and the almost "magic realism" of the ambiguous final scene in which the elderly Birkin revisits the church. Was the story told in flashback after all?

The lovely score by Howard Blake can also be singled out for praise; in hinting at the English pastoral music of the period, it captures the feel and era of the setting, contrasting well with the Schubert hymn of the opening and closing sections. The part when the hymn segues into Blake's musical theme at the end is genuinely spine-tingling, leaving a little pause of birdsong before its sweeping main theme comes in.

There's so much more than could be said about this film, but mainly to appreciate it, you have to see it and draw your own conclusions. If you enjoyed Firth in And When Did You Last See Your Father and to a lesser extent in The King's Speech, I wholeheartedly recommend you should see this. Unfortunately, as piece of work, it's almost completely forgotten. It hasn't been on television since 1991, even on FilmFour, and your best bet of seeing it today is looking for one of the recently released Spanish-language DVDs "Un Mes il Campo" that are floating around the internet.3

Part of me likes almost the fact it's so obscure, the damaged-looking surviving 1.66:1 print and an interesting back-story about how a poet spent years trying to trace a 35mm copy almost adds to the feeling of discovery when you first see the film.4 However, I hope that you do. It's wonderful.

RW

1. Actually, any film that features a railway somewhere in the story goes up in my estimations. What is it about steam engines that is so cinematic? I suppose one of the first films ever shown was of a steam train...

2. Channel 4 films have a bit of a habit of doing this, I notice. Brassed Off (1996), for example, which follows the plight of miners facing redundancy through a focus on a colliery band, was presented as if it was some sort of romantic comedy. The underrated and at points intensely moving Hillary and Jackie (1998), meanwhile, with its clever duel-biopic narrative, is likewise hampered with a rotten title and twee, almost girly posters.

3. Another criticism of the brilliant Channel Four Films; they also never show their films on their own channel, despite the fact that they made them. Film4 have produced many of the best British films of the last three decades. Surely they own the rights?

4. There is more information available about the production of this film on my Wikipedia page about it.

A Month in the Country

Company:Channel Four Films/Euston Films
Release date:1987
Duration:1 hr 30 mins
Details:1.66:1 colour, stereo.
Writers:J.L. Carr (novel), Simon Gray (adaptation)
Director:Pat O'Connor
Producers: Kennith Trodd
Overall: 10/10





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