A Month in the Country was scheduled to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1987. The film was edited and scored by late November 1986. But the issue of the title loomed. A Month in the Country was also the name of a famous 19th-century play by Ivan Turgenev. “Why should any writer have a monopoly on a good title?” J. L. Carr had said dismissively to Colin Firth. Nevertheless the filmmakers were nervous. During production the working title had been Falling Man. They also toyed with Birkin's Summer.
Now a producer gingerly brought up the subject directly with J. L. Carr. The author’s reply was crusty:
“You suggest that the film will be confused with a Turgenev play. ...Last week I visited a cinema to see the film Mona Lisa. Neither I, nor the motley throng at the box office, appeared to entertain the illusion that we were about to have a guided tour of the Louvre. A Month in the Country is an exceptionally good novel. It has been reprinted seven times, and has been read and enjoyed by many thousands of people. I have every confidence that it will be in print long after both of us are dead.”
The original title was restored.
At Cannes, A Month in the Country was an Official Selection in the category of Un Certain Regard, an annual array of “original and different” works showcased outside the competition for the Palme d’Or. The film’s promotional budget was as pinched as the production. A sheaf of a half dozen black-and-white stills and brief cast biographies was put together for the press packet.
Neither of the male leads was available for Cannes. Colin Firth was onstage in Greenwich making love to Carmen du Sautoy as his stepmother in Desire Under the Elms, while Kenneth Branagh was deep in a nine-month shoot of the BBC miniseries Fortunes of War, filmed in Yugoslavia and Greece. The reviews at Cannes were respectful. Variety noted, “Articulate writing, deft acting, and talented direction place it apart from similar tales of the genre, and offshore b.o. [box office] potential could be good if handled properly.”
Handling such a delicate film “properly,” without a well-known cast to attract attention, meant introducing it at a roadshow of film festivals, and praying for word of mouth. A Month in the Country opened at the New York Film Festival in September 1987. (“Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh are talented young actors to watch for,” Variety had declared, but they weren’t in New York either.) Two months later, at the London Film Festival, the film at last premiered in Britain.
A “major press show” was held for A Month in the Country in London — and finally the film’s two leads were on hand to promote it. One blow to any hopes for glamorous advertising photos was immediately obvious: Colin Firth had been shaved bald. (He had just completed the gritty Tumbledown, playing a Falklands soldier with half his head shot off.) Though working steadily in impressive projects, young Mr. Firth was not yet a true celebrity. Nor was he yet a natural interview: faced with a reporter’s notebook, he was apt to retreat into wary politeness. Inevitably he came across as serious, measured, and very earnest. As one publicist sighed, in those early days “you couldn’t give him away to the press.”
Kenneth Branagh was far more at ease with self-promotion but as usual consumed by a frenetic work schedule. That week he was preoccupied with problems encountered in producing and directing Twelfth Night for his new Renaissance Theatre Company. “I’ve set the play at Christmas time, in a winter landscape, and can I get the fucking snow?”
When A Month in the Country opened two days later, critics were divided between the many who hailed it as art and the few bored to a stupor. Even reviewers who loved the film used words like “gentle,” “subtle,” “slow,” and “quiet” — hardly surefire advertising tags in a marketplace dominated by Three Men and a Baby, Beverly Hills Cop II, and Fatal Attraction.
But none of the filmmakers had imagined a blockbuster. Excitingly, the film’s performances were universally acclaimed and there was a real possibility of a sleeper success.
Vogue commissioned the photographer Derek Ridgers to get a portrait of the rising young man who played Birkin — hair or no hair. But by the time the Vogue review (a tepid appraisal by the well-known critic Molly Haskell) came out, Birkin’s moment had come and gone. Kenneth Branagh was the talk of the hour in the huge seven-part Fortunes of War, nominated for no less than nine BAFTA awards, including Best Actor. Mr. Branagh’s portrait led the Vogue review of A Month in the Country.
Molly Haskell explains, “Vogue was always sending photographers to capture what they hoped and claimed People Are (would be) Talking About. When they promoted someone who promptly dropped from view, they were already on to the next hypothetical hottie.” Few in 1988 were hotter than Kenneth Branagh, whose career was taking off like a roman candle.
Over 1988 A Month in the Country opened across the United Kingdom, the United States, France, and Italy. Box office receipts were never enormous. For every three glowing reviews that appreciated each emotional nuance, there was another that grumbled of watching paint dry. Yet the film found its small, devoted audience. Years later Pat O’Connor spoke of his gratitude for the distributors, Michael Barker and Tom Bernard of Orion Classics. “They stayed fast and strong through the inevitable ups and downs.”
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MORE TO COME! Please check back soon. 6/2008