Feast of July (United Kingdom, 1995)
Feast of July, which arrives under the Merchant/Ivory umbrella (Ismail Merchant having served as executive producer), is much like a big screen version of a double-length Masterpiece Theater episode. By turns tragic and beautiful, but always atmospheric, this adaptation H.E. Bates' novel focuses on the dark side of love and the grotesque capacity for violence hidden deep within the meekest human being.
The film opens with a pregnant young woman, Bella Ford (Embeth Davidtz), struggling across the windswept countryside of late Victorian England. Unmarried and alone, she is undergoing a 30-mile journey to find the father of her unborn child. By the time she reaches the town where he claims to live (but in fact doesn't), she has miscarried. Exhausted and weak, she is taken in by a kindly local family, and soon becomes a member of the household. The sons -- Con (Ben Chaplin), Jedd (James Purefoy), and Matty (Kenneth Anderson) -- vie with each other for her attention, and, on one occasion, this sibling rivalry turns violent. For her part, Bella is attracted to all three, although one eventually rises above the others in her estimation. But he must compete with Bella's memories of her lost love, a scoundrel who suddenly re-appears.
There's no doubt that Feast of July is, at heart, a tragic melodrama. But, at least in its appraisal of human nature, it aspires to something greater. Despite the trappings of civilization, man is still an animal, and even the gentlest of people can be driven by uncontrollable passions to do terrible things. Reason has never been able to master love, and Feast of July illustrates the devastating results of one moment's irrational blindness. For, in this sort of fiction, if not always in real life, crime has consequences.
While Embeth Davidtz doesn't give the same degree of wrenching performance she delivered as Helen Hirsch in Schindler's List, she is nevertheless effective as the figure at the focus of Feast of July's events. Like Patricia Arquette in Ethan Frome, Davidtz doesn't initially seem right for the part, but it doesn't take much screen time for her to change the viewer's opinion. In her understated portrayal, we see an eloquent expression of desperation.
As is almost always the case in British productions, the sense of atmosphere is masterful. Director Christopher Menaul (Prime Suspect) has used all the tools at his disposal, including rich cinematography by Peter Sova and a haunting score by longtime Kieslowski collaborator Zbigniew Preisner, to craft a realistic portrait of a private tragedy. Even though the circumstances are outdated, the emotional core of Feast of July is timeless.
Joy is a scarce commodity in this film, and there's little opportunity for comic relief to lighten the tension. Feast of July is not for those seeking an uplifting motion picture experience. As accomplished as Menaul's technique is, the film is a real downer -- tissues are a recommended accessory. The main dish served up at this particular Feast is raw emotion.
Feast of July (United Kingdom, 1995)
Cast: Embeth Davidtz, Tom Bell, Gemma Jones, Ben Chaplin, James Purefoy, Kenneth Anderson, Greg Wise
Screenplay: Christopher Neame based on the novel by H. E. Bates
Cinematography: Peter Sova
Music: Zbigniew Preisner
U.S. Distributor: Touchstone Pictures
U.S. Release Date: 1995-10-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Violence)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
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