A movable feast

Fine performances elevate a commonplace tragedy to an ucommon level

As Feast of July opens, we are introduced to a young woman named Bella (Embeth Davidtz) as she hikes across the rugged hillside of southern England. Obviously exhausted, she makes her way with great difficulty to a shelter where she begins crying out in agony.

Soon the camera shows what we'd already suspected--she is pregnant, the delivery is distressed, and the baby is stillborn. Bella wraps the lifeless body in clothes, buries it in the woods, and continues her journey.

From a structural standpoint, opening a film with a bloody childbirth is an iffy venture: it makes you fear for the safety of mother and child, and that requires a lot of energy. When it comes as early in the narrative as it does here, the tactic can backfire, by assuming what your loyalties should be immediately. Ideally, a demonstration of sympathy toward anyone (especially a stranger) is an act of generosity on the sympathizer's part--a sign of his or her humanity. A movie that drops its viewers dead-center into a scene of excruciating pain usurps one's ability to make one's own choice, and that can start you off resenting the very character you're supposed to feel for. (That's not as big a danger when we get some time, even a few minutes, to know the character before being asked to commit our emotional resources toward her.) That kind of decision can be deadly to a movie, alienating viewers before bringing them within its thrall.

Initially, Feast of July succumbs to that kind of emotional backlash, but before long the compassion you feel for Bella is willingly given, not because the movie says you have to be understanding, but because her steadfast refusal to play the role of victim is a welcome indication of her own strength--she deserves our time and energy. You have to hand it to director Christopher Menaul and screenwriter Christopher Neame for taking such a risky bet and making it pay dividends. They do it by making Bella mysterious without being aloof, beautiful without an aura of intimidation. Like Hedda Gabler, she is different things to different people, and those around her project onto Bella the dreams and desires and emotions they feel and want to experience with her.

The transference of emotion is plentiful in Feast of July, due in significant measure to the electric interplay between the two principal characters, Bella and Con (Ben Chaplin). She enters the lives of Con and his family (his parents and two brothers, Matty and Jedd) when Con's father discovers her, distraught and cold, wandering into town soon after the birth ordeal. This being a pre-industrial society (before talk shows and psychotherapy), only Con's mother recognizes Bella's condition for what it is. She disapproves of Bella, but like the audience and all the other characters, she is drawn somehow to her and gives her the benefit of any doubts.

Unlike the mother, the men in the movie tend toward variations of the same inarticulate brutishness, and all the brothers fall instantly in love with Bella, leading to constant feuding for her attentions. When Con becomes agitated by Jedd's teasing of Bella, he reacts by attacking Jedd with a scythe, almost ripping him in half. This isn't typical fraternal jealousy: both men are out for blood. The scene isn't played to feel adventuresome and exciting, but rather animalistic, like the nude wrestling in Women in Love. Jedd and Con are two rams butting horns in a classic example of male domination, and like a nature film of animals' mating rituals, you never take sides for one or the other, you just hope neither gets hurt. Love-triangle fight scenes often seem forced or trite, but here they arise out of the characters rather than the exigencies of the plot, and have a certain inevitability.

There is a visual drabness to Feast of July (except for the authentic production design), and the pacing is off, but it works because of some fine performances. As Con, Chaplin is full of earnest fury; he's an oafish, disheveled pit bull, genuinely possessed by a natural protectiveness for Bella. With his dark brooding looks and sensitive eyes, he's not simply a hothead but a great-hearted romantic. Davidtz, exceptional as the Jewish housekeeper in Schindler's List, has a direct, spare, no-nonsense style, like Jane Fonda or Sigourney Weaver. The film is built to showcase her character, and she meets the needs of the story.

Objectively speaking, more things probably go wrong with Feast of July than go right. Its message is never readily apparent, in part because the movie isn't much more than what it appears to be--no universal truths get exercised, and it lacks the scope and authority to be a true tragedy (the plot is too commonplace to be much more than a somber love story). But I took an interest in these characters' lives, and didn't regret spending time with them. Maybe the most you could say of Feast of July is that it deals honestly with the passions that drive us, the cycle of love, suffering, and healing that we call life. But that's also the worst you could say.

Feast of July. Touchstone Pictures. Embeth Davidtz, Ben Chaplin. Written by Christopher Neame. Directed by Christopher Menaul. Now showing.

 
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