J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country is written in the first person, from Tom Birkin’s point of view, looking back at the summer of 1919 almost sixty years later. In an early draft of the screenplay, this rueful older perspective was revealed in a structure of voiceovers.
But that “was not the way I thought it should be done,” said the director Pat O’Connor. “I felt that if I couldn’t do it in the present, suggesting internal pain by performance, then I wouldn’t really want to do it at all.”
The voiceovers were stripped away. Birkin, the shattered protagonist, rarely speaks more than a handful of words at a time. Simon Gray’s beautiful screenplay boiled down the novel to its bones of unarticulated pain, loneliness, yearning, and regret.
“The film is about the tearing apart inside when you don’t find a way of saying what you think, or what you mean,” Mr. O’Connor explained. “And so the scenes are supposed to have kind of an explosive quality about them, because you don’t know quite what’s going on under the surface.”
Repression. The lasting scars of war. The power of art. The pull of religion. Healing. As the journalist Lynn Darling pointed out, “It’s a lot to communicate to an audience under the best of circumstances; in a movie in which nothing much happens, it becomes a nerve-racking tightrope walk in which directors and actors work without a net.” Colin Firth agreed, using a different metaphor. “It felt like sailing a ship without ballast: a slight misjudgment could send the whole thing off course.”
One of the satisfactions of Simon Gray’s “crystalline,” “brilliantly enigmatic” script is its comfort with ambiguity and unanswered questions. The subtleties and silences of A Month in the Country have inspired many different interpretations. [Read more ...] “What I like about this movie,” said Pat O’Connor, “is that there are more hints than anything else.”
When the producer Kenith Trodd invited the playwright Simon Gray to write the script for A Month in the Country, the choice was not an obvious one. In 1985 Simon Gray was well known as the author of bitingly witty contemporary plays, often set at university. (Mr. Gray had been a lecturer at Cambridge for twenty years.) In such hits as Otherwise Engaged, Butley, and Quartermaine's Terms, Mr. Gray’s characters were famously verbal and sparkling with sophisticated malice. How did these hyper-articulate gifts pertain to J. L. Carr’s reticent story of shell-shocked soldiers after World War I?
The answer is that Mr. Gray specialized in damaged men. His best-known works were literate character studies of men in psychological pain. In Mr. Gray’s plays, talk was not only used as a means of communication but as a weapon or a shield — most often to keep emotion at bay. Beneath his characters’ bitter, coruscating humor lay a deep loneliness, fear of intimacy, and despair. For all their comedy, as the New York Times pointed out, Mr. Gray’s plays were “plays about loss — of love, friendship, talent, youth.” His writing evoked comparisons to Chekhov and to his friend and frequent collaborator Harold Pinter, critics noting Mr. Gray’s “similar interest in what language reveals and conceals.” The Times called Quartermaine’s Terms “a play that finds its most affecting drama in the unsaid and the unseen.” Thus despite outer differences, Simon Gray was ideally suited to be the interpreter of J. L. Carr’s Birkin and Moon.
He was also driven and tirelessly prolific. Fueled by cigarettes and champagne, almost simultaneously with A Month in the Country Mr. Gray was writing the award-winning drama After Pilkington for the BBC (and Kenith Trodd). By the time A Month in the Country was filming he was touring the United States with his play The Common Pursuit.
Today Mr. Gray has written over thirty plays, in addition to radio plays, film screenplays, and television scripts. In recent years he has also produced numerous volumes of witty, acerbic reminiscences about his life in the theatre. In 2004 Mr. Gray was created a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to Drama and Literature. When his hilarious and poignant memoir The Smoking Diaries was published in 2005, the Telegraph called it “a moving, wildly entertaining classic of the memoirist’s art,” and the Daily Express declared, “For these diaries alone he should be knighted.”