With Friends Like These, Who Needs Enemies?

If it were our intention to lose money on a movie project — if we were consciously designing a film to empty theaters — we could do no better than drawing up something along the lines of A Month in the Country.

Subject matter? Only perfect, that’s all. What we would want, of course, is a topic as far removed from the action arena as possible. But what perverse genius could imagine a situation this static, this inert, this motionless? Birkin, a deeply troubled veteran of World War I (World War One! Brilliant!), is a mass of facial tics and stammers; the remote Yorkshire village of Oxgodby hires him to slowly peel away the centuries of paint that cover a medieval church mural of Christ and the Judgment. (That’s the main action of the movie, stripping paint. Glorious!) The secondary characters would be a mixed lot. Moon is another deeply troubled veteran. (Two of them! Inspired!) And he has been hired to spend his summer outside the church, looking for an old unmarked grave. (Looking for a grave — are you beginning to see the sheer beauty of all this?)

...Despite all these precautions, however, this is always the danger that we might slip and somehow come up with a very nice little movie. Oh, no real danger of crowds beating down our doors, but those who enjoy the offbeat and slow, the movie that relinquishes its rewards reluctantly, will find that A Month in the Country offers many compensations.

...As the young men return to life, as their quests come to fruition, the movie becomes emotionally involving. It is, in fact, a very nice little film and, what’s more, it has something to say. In fact, so involving is it, it won’t even bother you to discover that the theater you’re sitting in is not all that crowded. FULL REVIEW
— Mike McGrady




They Worried:

English and subtle all the way through, A Month in the Country hardly seems to fit a film market that currently boasts of Beetlejuice and Casual Sex? Yet here it is. FULL REVIEW
— David Elliott

Coming at a time when most movies are pandering to a public whose interest span has supposedly been lessened by exposure to MTV, A Month in the Country plays as a welcome return to a kind of movie that will never become a major mainstream hit but represents the best of what an art-house item can offer: a quiet, intelligent, perceptive work.  FULL REVIEW
— Bill Hagen

They Hated It:

Another mousy fiesta of rueful epiphanies and unexpressed emotion, Pat O’Connor’s A Month in the Country sets a traumatized veteran to restoring the remarkably Byzantine fresco of a Yorkshire church. Flies buzz, daffodils wave, the grass grows under your seat. Was ever a title more expressive?  FULL REVIEW
— J. Hoberman

When the producers of A Month in the Country named the film the way they did, they were running a considerable risk. The risk was that some wise-guy reviewer would say that a month in the country was the best way to describe the experience of sitting through the film. In point of fact, A Month in the Country is not really that dull — it doesn't feel any longer than a week. FULL REVIEW
— Ben Yagoda

It’s all very competent and meaningful but nothing ACTUALLY happens. Birkin and the dewy Mrs. Keach never do more than pass the time of day. The boys reflect on the weather and the awful trenches. A village girl dies of consumption, Birkin’s stutter gets better, and a few cows hang around in the background looking faintly bored. I don’t need car chases in Morris Minors, but this has more heavy silences than the British Library.  FULL REVIEW
— Sue Heal

There is never a raised voice or even an arched eyebrow.  Everyone is stoic to a fault.  The summer of 1919 was, apparently, not the most demonstrative of times. …Birkin is falling in love with the minister’s lonely wife, Alice. She finds him interesting as well, but this is 1919. They are stoic. They go for walks and discuss her roses. That’s about it for dramatic content in A Month in the Country FULL REVIEW
— Harry Bowman

Perhaps it is an American failing to wish that, every once in a while, somebody would do something instead of just thinking about it. ...You find yourself wondering, after a while, how the British ever have babies.   FULL REVIEW
— Harper Barnes

O’Connor must be under the impression that he is onto new ground in exploring English repression, sexual anxiety, inability to speak, and the war’s heritage of quiet on so many fronts. His labor is a noble effort, but a snooze.  FULL REVIEW
— Tom O'Brien


ill titlePromotion

cannesA 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.

BirkinandAlice 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.”

allHandling 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.

ill titleReception

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. Ridgers 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. ColinandJimKenneth 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