Welcome overstayed

A Month By the Lake feels like years

Reading the press materials for A Month By the Lake, the latest bit of curdled whimsy from our mother country, you discover that there is a prestigious English film institute called the London School of Film Technique, and that director John Irvin (Widow's Peak, Hamburger Hill) graduated from it.

One can only imagine the course titles available there, based on the kind of product the Brits have churned out to eager American art houses for the last decade--"How To Use Italians to Loosen Up Englishmen," "Anglo Idleness and Mixed Signals: Is There a Connection?" and, of course, "Subtlety or Blandness: The Fine Line That Erases Itself."

Might American movie fans nauseous from a few too many cups of lukewarm tea in the company of dithering, period-costumed actors with watercress-crisp enunciation instigate a campus rebellion at the London School of Film Technique? This is also an economic matter, folks. We may have just discovered the biggest trade imbalance between America and England--entertaining movies.

Of course, A Month By the Lake is impeccably photographed and performed with the utmost relaxed professionalism by a veteran cast including Vanessa Redgrave, perhaps the world cinema's greatest living actress. It's also inconsequential, excruciatingly long, and precious for the sake of being precious, a "gentle" comedy that purports to celebrate the foolishness of human nature in the throes of romance.

The best reply for all those opportunistic politicians who scream about sex and violence in movies is a screening of A Month By the Lake, which makes you realize how unnecessary nudity and the occasional bloodbath can be positive, even merciful elements in a film.

Director Irvin constructs a love triangle for our pleasure and then lets the damned thing stand there for 90 minutes, creaking and groaning in the winds of fate. The following descriptions of characters are lifted verbatim from the film's press notes--they don't so much describe personalities of these dolts as provide blueprints for the prisons these talented actors are trapped inside.

Miss Bentley (Redgrave), "a spirited woman with an insatiable appetite for life," has vacationed every spring at the Fascioli resort on Italy's Lake Como. Unmarried and recovering from the recent death of her elderly father, Miss Bentley is going it alone this year. With so much time on her hands, she can't help but fall in love with Major Wilshaw (Edward Fox), who is "proper but not stuffy."

Unfortunately, Wilshaw has both a fragile ego (she whips his overstarched butt at tennis in front of the servant staff) and an eye for youthful feminine pulchritude which goes all agog over Miss Beaumont (Uma Thurman), the "flirtatious, beautiful, and spoiled American" who's in Europe working as a nanny for a rich Italian family.

A Month By the Lake is set in 1937, when the cold, sour breaths of Hitler and Mussolini were raising the hair on the backs of everyone's necks. It's a period of time ripe for capturing big emotions, and Irvin does briefly wake us up during a sequence when Miss Bentley gets caught in the middle of a fascist military parade. Of course, too much political contextualizing would burden any romantic comedy, but Irvin's touch is so unrelentingly light that the personal hijinks are unanchored, sweet shenanigans that swirl around us and then disappear down the drain, leaving no residue of personality in any of the characters.

And then there's Uma Thurman, an actress who's given two good performances (Jennifer 8 and Pulp Fiction), and has languished as an ornament for the rest of her career. Miss Beaumont is supposed to be a heedless, selfish coquette, but Thurman can only come up with a distracting series of fluttery hand gestures and twitchy half-expressions.

A Month By the Lake is probably even more disappointing because Irvin's last movie, Widow's Peak, was one of 1994's best, a wry, arch comedy of ill manners that featured a sublimely nasty trio of performances by Joan Plowright, Natasha Richardson, and Mia Farrow. Those acid-tongued dames had everything the damp dishrags in this opus lack, and the script made surprising choices with their characters that the action ultimately validated.

The only surprise in A Month By the Lake is how, within a 90-minute time frame, four weeks can be made to seem like a life sentence without parole.

A Month By the Lake. Miramax. Vanessa Redgrave, Edward Fox, Uma Thurman. Written by Trevor Bentham. Directed by John Irvin. Opens September 29.

 
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