A Month in the Country is a low-key and long-overlooked British heritage film. It was originally released in 1987, the very decade in which the heritage film came into its own thanks to a run of critically acclaimed movies that included Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire (1981), David Lean’s A Passage to India (1984) and Merchant-Ivory’s A Room With a View (1985).
Usually set some time prior to World War II, British heritage films are often adaptations of literary works that focus on the lives of bourgeois or aristocratic characters rather than the working class. Accordingly, these films tend to feature nostalgic visions of idealized pasts that foreground opulent stately homes, lovingly shot views of the British countryside and a surfeit of finely observed period detail.
A Month in the Country just about ticks all of these boxes, however, in keeping with its modest budget and, indeed, the content of the slim novel by J. L. Carr that it is based on, the film is realized on a much smaller, simpler and more intimate scale than the high-profile heritage features cited above. This smallness of scale, simpler nature and sense of intimacy actually enables A Month in the Country to establish a look — and a pleasing emotional ambience — all of its own.
Indeed, in the interview included in this release’s extra features section, Colin Firth seeks to distance A Month in the Country from its heritage movie stable-mates when he observes that the film “doesn’t really quite belong in that camp, you know, the white-flannelled public schoolboys suffering elegantly in the cricket pavilion. I think it’s about something harsher than that.” I would argue that Firth is right to highlight this distinction.
Set in 1920, the film details the events that take place when Tom Birkin (Colin Firth) spends the summer in the small Yorkshire town of Oxgodby. Birkin, a World War I veteran whose experiences in combat have left him suffering with a stammer, facial twitches, bouts of shakiness in his hands and persistent nightmares, has been employed to uncover and restore a 15th century wall painting in a local church. Birkin elects to bed down in the church’s belfry for the duration of his stay after being given a rude reception by the local vicar, Keach (Patrick Malahide), who feels that the painting will only act as a distraction for his already uncommitted congregation.
Camped nearby is an archaeologist, James Moon (Kenneth Branagh), who is conducting a search for the grave of a local dignitary’s excommunicated ancestor, who was buried in unhallowed ground close to the church. A recipient of the Military Cross, Moon has also been left traumatized by his wartime experiences, and the two men gradually establish a loose friendship of sorts.
Birkin’s initially quite solitary existence is soon enlivened by contact with a local stationmaster-cum-lay preacher, Ellerbeck (Jim Carter), and his family. However, life becomes more complicated for Birkin when Keach’s pretty young wife, Alice (Natasha Richardson), takes an interest in his work.
The British are stereotypically perceived to be a race of people who suppress their emotions with a stiff upper lip when they are placed in trying situations. In the informative booklet that accompanies this release, Jo Botting refers to a strand of British cinema that features films that address this national stereotype by including scenarios that “deal with intense and difficult emotions through a prism of restraint or introspection.” A Month in the Country is a film that fits perfectly into this national filmmaking tradition.
The film’s four main characters all carry some level of pain, anguish or unhappiness with them. Birkin’s issues relate to his wartime traumas and his wife’s unfaithful nature. Moon’s issues also relate to his wartime traumas and to matters concerning his sexuality. The vicar’s issues relate to his bleak view of his relationship with his uncommitted congregation while his wife’s issues relate to her lonely and loveless marriage. All four characters are determined to control and internalize their feelings but their torment can still be read in their faces, seen in their welled up eyes, and detected within the subconsciously metaphorical content of their incidental conversations with each other.
Ultimately, the reserved manner and the distancing tactics that these characters expertly employ cannot be maintained at all times. There are odd occasions when emotions do make their way to the surface but, in keeping with the general mood of the film, these flashes of emotion tend to be signaled by nuanced changes in the character’s tone of voice and facial expression, rather than obvious and histrionic physical gestures. As such, Howard Blake’s beautiful and highly expressive music plays a major role in conveying emotional and dramatic meaning here.
Elsewhere camerawork, mise-en-scène, and symbolism assist the viewer’s understanding of key plot points. A good example of this occurs when Birkin visits the vicarage. It’s a huge house full of large empty rooms and when the vicar and his wife are seen there together a great physical distance is always present between them. The emptiness and distance says much about the state of their relationship. Their relationship itself — a younger woman with a mismatched older man– is one of the film’s many implicit reflections upon the horrors and the after effects of World War I: a war that decimated and damaged a whole generation of eligible young men.
While A Month in the Country is ostensibly a film about pain, disappointment, solitude and exasperation, it does feature some moments that are lighter in nature. Birkin’s interactions with Ellerbeck’s children, Kathy (Vicki Arundale) and Edgar (Martin O’Neil), serve as charming enough interludes and the kids antics tend to lighten his mood and put a smile on his face. Even so, what should be a pleasant afternoon spent in a neighboring town with the pair eventually results in more disappointment and upset for Birkin. Birkin’s subsequent visit to another town with the children’s father, in order to assist him in his bid to buy a new church organ, leads to a similar outcome.
These narrative interludes are connected by scenes that show Birkin’s ongoing restoration work on the church’s wall painting. His endeavors eventually reveal a scene of judgment and damnation, but the attention that the artist has purposefully drawn to one specific character in the scene prompts a mystery that Birkin is eager to solve and this twist serves to add a pleasing sub-narrative to the film.
A tangible sense of resolution is felt when Birkin finds the answer to the mystery in the most unexpected of places. But in order for the film’s main narrative strand to work its way towards its end, he and Alice must meet for one last time. The communication of their unspoken love for each other via facial expressions, tone of voice and body language in this highly moving scene is beautifully played by Firth and Richardson. You’d be forgiven for thinking that A Month in the Country had hit its emotional high point at this moment but a further scene — that works as a kind of coda — goes on to demand an even deeper emotional response from the viewer.
Originally conceived as a television film, the public’s ongoing interest in heritage features during the ’80s allowed A Month in the Country to secure a successful cinema release. With hindsight, it’s easy to appreciate just how strong a cast the film’s producers managed to assemble. Lots of familiar faces from British television dramas and cinema films can be spotted in supporting roles here, while its lead characters are brought to life by two then relatively unknown actors, Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh, who would go on to achieve star status. The entire cast delivers acting of a suitably high quality, though some of the Yorkshire accents present here are just a tad overplayed in places.
In spite of its success at the box office and its notable cast, A Month in the Country was at one time thought to be a lost film. It turns out that prints of the film were stored in at least two archives, but its original negative was indeed missing for a number of years. Now found, the negative has been used for this current home video release by the BFI and this pristine presentation’s picture quality is suitably detailed and colorful. The many shades of green that are found in the film’s numerous shots of the English countryside (actually Buckinghamshire standing in for Yorkshire due to budget-related considerations and Kenneth Branagh’s ongoing London stage commitments during the evenings of the shooting schedule) are reproduced onscreen quite magnificently.
A cut above the average British heritage feature, A Month in the Country remains a thoughtfully scripted, leisurely paced and finely constructed film that surreptitiously draws the viewer in before granting them an intensely emotional payoff.
This release’s extra features include informative interviews with Colin Firth and the film’s director Pat O’Connor. Also included is an audio commentary by the film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman and A Month in the Country’s theatrical trailer.