September 22, 1995

FILM REVIEW; Romance In the Sun, Foiled And Then Unfoiled


John Irvin's film "A Month by the Lake" is an irresistibly likable example of an emergent genre: the movie as a high-toned, sunlit European vacation. An offshoot of the Merchant-Ivory school of genteel nostalgia, the genre became distinct two years ago with "Enchanted April." And "A Month by the Lake," which is set just before World War II in the glorious Alpine foothills around Lake Como in northern Italy, gives it an extra polish.

Vanessa Redgrave, in one of her most delicious screen roles, plays Miss Bentley, a spirited middle-aged English woman and amateur photographer returning to the Fascioli resort, a lakeside getaway she has visited with her father every year since childhood. It is 1937, and this time she is alone, her father having recently died. Upon arrival, she finds herself drawn to Major Wilshaw (Edward Fox), another solo traveler from England, who is roughly the same age.

Her campaign to win the major's friendship and spark his romantic interest is fraught with minor mishaps. He is miffed when she is late for cocktails and humiliated when she beats him at tennis. And with the arrival of Miss Beaumont (Uma Thurman), an attractive, headstrong American student who has a job as a nanny for two Italian children, his head is turned.

Bratty, rebellious and callous enough to flirt with the major despite having no romantic interest in him, Miss Beaumont is so self-absorbed that she remains oblivious to any apple carts she might be upsetting. Ms. Thurman gives the role the same hard-candy brashness she radiated in "Pulp Fiction." It is a flashy performance that proves she is not afraid to be unsympathetic.

Ms. Thurman, who is all flounces, pouts and petulant declarations, and Miss Redgrave, who can imply a whole emotional universe with the tilt of an eyebrow and the set of her jaw, make a bracing pair of opposites. Without seeming too good to be true, Miss Bentley emerges as an independent woman of sensitivity, vitality and good humor who moves through the world with a serene sense of who she is. Whether loping, gazelle-like, down a staircase, or cheerfully rebuffing a man's advances, Miss Redgrave also gives the character a sly comic lilt.

Together, she and Mr. Fox do a wonderfully subtle pas de deux as complicated grown-ups drawn into a guarded but evolving relationship. Beneath his rather stuffy facade, the major is a vulnerable soul with a streak of playfulness. In the film's most poignant scene, he entertains the guests with a magic show that goes painfully awry.

Barely able to maintain his composure when in Miss Beaumont's presence, he is also an abject suitor who endures excruciating embarrassment at her cavalier hands. On more than one occasion, when she mocks his stiffness by comparing him to a candlestick, he squirms and reddens.

In the middle of the film, a handsome young Italian named Vittorio (Alessandro Gassman) makes a play for Miss Bentley, who deftly uses his attentions to spark the major's interest. Everything is resolved in a feel-good ending that is a bit too pat.

"A Month by the Lake," which was adapted from a short story by H. E. Bates, has no pressing agenda other than to charm with its sensuous vision of mostly likable characters delicately negotiating their romantic lives in a paradisiacal setting. As the sunlight falls in misty sheets over the water, and the characters unpack a picnic on a gorgeous wooded hillside, you have the sense of having stepped into an Impressionist painting. The climate is so inviting that it is a little wrenching to bid the movie goodbye.

"A Month by the Lake" is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). It has sexual situations.


Directed by John Irvin; written by Trevor Bentham; director of photography, Pasqualino De Santis; edited by Peter Tanner; music by Nicola Piovani; production designer, Giovanni Giovagnoni; produced by Robert Fox; released by Miramax Films. Running time: 118 minutes. This film is rated PG. WITH: Vanessa Redgrave (Miss Bentley), Edward Fox (Major Wilshaw), Uma Thurman (Miss Beaumont), Alessandro Gassman (Vittorio) and Alida Valli (Mrs. Fascioli).

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