Of the various BBC Play for Todays and C4 films I’ve used to extend Film 2020 beyond its natural and impending end, A Month in the Country is the most genuinely film-like even as its concerns and its slow pastorality identify it as a television programme. It is a (mostly) faithful adaptation of J.L. Carr’s Booker Prize nominated novel, once reviewed here, with what we would now regard as a stellar cast, Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh and Natasha Richardson, but which was then young actors, talented, destined to rise but here effective novices. And the film is better for their inexperience, as each brings a freshness to their performance, unaffected by fame.
The story takes place over the summer of 1920, in and around the North Riding town of Oxgodsby, a rural community, a place of peace, stillness, eternity and solidity (ironically, most of the film’s outdoor scenes, which are beautiful, are filmed in Buckinghamshire). Birkin (Firth) is a picture restorer, hired by bequest to uncover and restore a long-covered mural in the Church. He is also a War veteran who, like many who survived, is tortured by his experiences, which present themselves physically as a facial tic and a pronounced stammer.
Another veteran, archaeologist James Moon (Branagh) is living in a bell-tent outside the graveyard, hired on bequest to discover the bones of Piers Hebron, an ancestor buried anonymously outside the graveyard for reasons unknown that will tie into Birkin’s assignment. Moon’s torments are less visible, though they run deep: he suffers agonising leg cramps, has dug a foxhole for himself to sleep in, for safety, and then there’s the nightmares.
Birkin’s task is opposed by the Vicar, the Reverend Keach (Patrick Malahide), who fears a superstitious distraction, correctly it is implied. He is cold and distant – Mallahide conveys this superbly, just by how he speaks, in clipped sentences that seem to trail off, as if Birkin is not worth speaking to. The Church offers Birkin nothing but his payment, in exact detail: Birkin sleeps on floorboards in the belfry.
It’s not very exciting as stories go but that is the whole point. Birkin and Moon are damaged men, ruined men, men who have undergone experiences unimaginable to the men who went before them. Moon is outwardly the more cheerful, self-composed. He’s slightly shy and hesitant in talking but he talks where Birkin listens. Both keep what they have gone through within themselves even with each other.
But in Oxgodsby, Moon is the outsider, keeping himself to himself. Both men are outsiders, Londoners in what might be expected to be the insularity of Yorkshire, but in contrast Birkin is drawn into the community. First by the Ellerbeck family, who are Chapel (Methodists), whose religion is more severe and challenging that Keach’s didactic refinement, but whose immediate warmth and willingness to provide Birkin with comforts is as natural and instinctive as can be imagined.
And Birkin is taken here, there and everywhere, experiencing all of the community. It’s far more noticeable in the film than the book, but Birkin is put upon at every turn, to do this and that: umpire the local cricket match, preach at the distant Chapel, visit the dying girl.
But it’s all part of this one summer. Birkin becomes part of Oxgodsby, however temporarily. He takes part, he is treated normally, and slowly the tics and the stammer diminish. Only diminish, not disappear.
There is another reason behind this and that is Alice Keach (Richardson). Alice is the Reverend’s wife, at least fifteen years younger, and a very beautiful young woman. Even Moon – who we will learn late on in the film, spent the last six months of the War in military prison, notwithstanding his Military Cross, for “buggering his batman” – recognises her as a stunner. And Richardson is truly lovely, clear-eyed, brown-haired, slightly rounded of face, shy of manner.
What she’s doing with Keach is inexplicable and unexplained. He’s not worth her, for all his intellectual piety, she deserves someone nearer her own age. Birkin, by virtue of who he is, is the ideal solution, but that would be to trash the story. Birkin is married, to an unfaithful wife who has run off with another man but whose letter asking to try again (again) will draw him back to London at the end. But in the end, he is too withheld to make a move, and she too doe-eyed female to initiate something that will breach all her vows. The affair never reaches a single touch.
In the centre is the mural. It’s a vast allegory, the Judgement, of men and women, angels and devils. Birkin does not believe in God but the subject, and the quality of the art (created specially for the film by Margaret Noyes) fascinates him. He is drawn to a falling figure in a corner, disfigured by a crescent scar, and to a rough area not done by the artist.
The answer is simple: the artist fell and was killed before the mural was complete. And when Moon discovers the stone coffin that contains Piers’ bones, the mysteries fuse. Piers Hebron was a Muslim convert, and the artist.
Stories like this have no real end. They are epiodes in a life and thus merely phases. The end, in physicality, is moving on, Birkin back to his unfaithful wife, Moon to a dig in Baghdad. The Keach’s remain, as will the Ellerbacks, the Cloughs and Douthwaite. Emily Clough has tuberculosis: her death will follow. Perce Ellerback died in the War. Not even permanence was untouched or unchanged. We have lived through a summer that was an idyllic dream in a world where there is no longer any room for idylls: such ease will not last.
The film creates an aatmosphere into which we sink, gratefully, so it’s such a crashing disappointment to see it blow it in the last few moments. In the book, Birkin never goes back. The film endswith Birkin walking away, across fieds as dry and sunny as they were soaked and grey on his arrival. He looks back at the Church where an old man is approaching, carrying a book. The old man pauses and looks at him, before entering the Church. He is Birkin, seen across time, carrying the book in which Birkin pressed the rose Alice Keach gave him. The Church is a blaze of light in which he sees young Kathy Ellerbeck and her brother Edgar before the light suffuses everything and he walks into it and dissolves.
I shall fast forward thriough this bit next time I watch A Month in the Country.
That the film exists, and can be watched, is a matter of luck. It was neglected for decades before a random 35mm print was discovered, the same way old and wiped Dr Who episodes have been found, and the first DVD was withdrawn due to copyright issues. But, even after that nonsense at the end, I am very grateful to have the chance to watch this film, and film it is, ultimately. It deserves to be better known. It takes you there and shows you the surface, but it lets you see the writhing emotions everyone keeps hid, leaving just what they are to your imagination. And it shows you why Messrs Firth, Branagh and Richardson became stellar, when they were unspoiled.