Film Scouts Diaries

1995 Montreal Film Festival Diaries
Montreal Diary #1

by David Sterritt

August 25, 1995

This year's edition of the World Film Festival is its first full day of operations, and it seems like all Montreal is buzzing about "Feast of July," the movie that kicked off festivities last night. Not that Christopher Menaul's low-key British drama provides much to buzz about, but it's the only thing everyone has seen, so it's getting chewed over far more than it needs to be - and far more than would be the case if it screened in some undistinguished slot midway through the festival.

Adapted by Christopher Neame from a novel by the late H.E. Bates, the picture starts with a scene straight out of Thomas Hardy, as a young Englishwoman secretly gives birth to a stillborn baby, mournfully disposes of the evidence, and then tries to start life afresh in a new place, far from the irresponsible scoundrel who seduced and abandoned her. She moves in with a friendly family that includes no fewer than three hearty young lads, who spar with one another - sometimes veering dangerously close to real violence - over the affections of their extremely attractive houseguest. She bestows her favors on the most sensitive of the bunch, knowing she made the right choice when he responds with burbling unselfishness to her revelation of her checkered past. All's in place for a bright future when (wouldn't you know) the aforementioned scoundrel shows up, prompting a fatal showdown and a finale that's as corny as it is bittersweet.

Menaul has a distinguished record in British television, and "Feast of July" has the sense of muted, wrench-the-emotions-but-don't-offend-anyone cautiousness long associated with the Alistair Cooke school of TV dramaturgy. What's lacking is the depth and delicacy of the best Merchant Ivory productions, which also appear to have influenced Menaul - indeed, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory helped produce the film, and one can't help thinking it would have carried more bite and conviction if they had actually made it.

By coming down on the movie's failure to fulfill its potential as an absorbing 19th-century saga, I don't mean to slight the virtues it does have. Embeth Davidtz, best known for her impressive work in "Schindler's List," gives a solid and appealing portrayal of the heroine, and Ben Chaplin and Gemma Jones are good in the supporting cast. Zbigniew Preisner composed the music, which purveys his patented eerie-loveliness effect while blending nicely with a number of period compositions that liven up the sound track.

Above all, Peter Sova's cinematography is extraordinarily beautiful from first frame to last - although its prettiness often seems too eager to please, and it wears its inspirations too conspicuously for comfort; you can almost see Millet's brushstrokes in the big Haying Scene, for instance. The whole affair takes on an "Elvira Madigan" monotony after a while, making one yearn for a little ugliness to relieve the sameness of it all. This isn't helped by Menaul's limited bag of directing tricks, consisting mainly of an affection for rack-focus work and a habit of punctuating scenes by interposing movement (passing pedestrians, etc.) between camera and characters. These are respectable filmmaking tools, but they can't provide the emotional energy this picture sorely needs.

A colleague tells me she spoke to people at the post-screening party who really enjoyed "Feast of July," but my experience was the opposite: I attended the same soiree, and when I summed the picture up as Beautiful and Boring, everyone within earshot mumbled agreement. All of which means the festival has no opening-night wonder to live up to for the next 10 days, and things can only improve from here.

Next Installment

Back to Montreal Film Festival Diaries

Look for Search Tips

Copyright 1994-2008 Film Scouts LLC
Created, produced, and published by Film Scouts LLC
Film Scouts® is a registered trademark of Film Scouts LLC
All rights reserved.

Suggestions? Comments? Fill out our Feedback Form.