Summer Movies Week: A Month in the Country (1987)
A PAGAN SALUTE TO THE PASSING OF SEASONS
by Sarah Malone
I have rarely felt so cold as in England in the summer. With the wind and rain, and clouds between showers like a grey aerial speedway off the Irish Sea, I felt something exciting was always on the verge of happening.
Calm, cloudless days—not the “bright intervals” of chipper BBC forecasts—were rare and different. Then the steep town, railway station and Indian restaurant I kept returning to were all transported into afternoon light that shifted so slowly it seemed permanent, bound to continue somewhere you can’t find by map after we had returned to our bright intervals and sheets of rain.
A Month in the Country (1987) takes place in that country, in Yorkshire (though it was filmed in Buckinghamshire, an hour or so outside London). Adapted from J.L. Carr’s 1980 Booker Prize short-listed novel, the movie opens at the end of World War One, as we learn from the opening shot of Tom Birkin (a very young-looking Colin Firth) crawling through trench mud and water like milk.
We next see Birkin writhing in bed, in shell-shocked nightmare, and then on a train, grim but put-together, in civvies, getting by with a stiff upper lip and cigarette, though the little girl who catches his eye can tell: something is off.
Birkin is bound for Oxgodby, a village in Yorkshire. A bequest to the parish church is contingent on the restoration of a medieval mural on the wall over the altar, and so the vicar has grudgingly hired Birkin, paying him so little that he has to sleep in the bell tower (which the vicar also begrudges him).
Also hired for the summer is James Moon (Kenneth Branagh, in his feature debut), another veteran of the Great War. He is camped in a nearby meadow, officially looking for the remains of the benefactor’s ancestor, who was excommunicated and buried in unhallowed ground. But secretly he’s looking for Saxon artifacts, proud of his knowledge that the village is far older than its current inhabitants know or care. He takes no one except Birkin into his confidence. They’re virtually the only young men in the movie.
On Birkin’s first morning in Oxgodby, he has barely started work in the church when Moon comes into the church and invites him out to the meadow for tea.
“You’ve got the whole summer,” Moon says. “Spin out the anticipation another half hour why don’t you.”
Isn’t that the essence of summer (at least, ideally)? Anticipation? Always awaiting the moment we’re about to be in. Get comfortable, the movie says; unpack. You’ve arrived, gotten a good night’s sleep. You’re going to be here until cold weather, and on a morning like this, how could that change?
The image used to promote A Month in the Country—Birkin and Moon reclining on a tomb in the churchyard in that golden light—might seem an invitation to the terrain of Under the Tuscan Sun or A Room With a View. But A Month in the Country knows better, even at the beginning. This is an English summer; enjoy what you can, while you can. Tempus fugit. The painting Birkin is uncovering depicts the Last Judgment. Moon’s voice is heavy with irony. After the trenches, could he or Birkin be filled with anticipation for anything?
But Moon does seem excited about his Saxon artifacts, and pleased with the time he is (essentially) stealing, and Birkin shows a matter-of-fact satisfaction in his craft and in being more or less left alone with it.
Except he’s never entirely alone. Ellerbeck, the stationmaster and chapel preacher (not to be confused with the very Church of England vicar), sends his children to watch Birkin, knowing that they won’t have another chance to see an artist at work, not knowing that Birkin isn’t really an artist. He’s merely a laborer, Birkin says, flustered. He has come back from the war with a stammer. Words are an effort, and then tumble out all at once.
Then Alice Keach (Natasha Richardson) comes by to check on him.
“It seems so inhospitable, you up there on the floorboards and we in our beds,” she says.
“No, I’m all right,” he says, though in the bell tower he’d cursed the entire congregation, quietly, while the vicar was downstairs preaching. “At the end of the day I’m so tired I sleep like I’m… dead.”
It’s the first time he’s seemed glad about anything. However, he is married, though estranged from his wife, and Alice is married, too—to the bloodless vicar, who seems passionate only about playing his violin, alone in an empty room. The vicar is embittered against his own congregation, who come to church not for Christian redemption, he says, but for “a pagan salute to the seasons” (heaven forbid).
Religion runs through A Month in the Country—the artifacts, music and practice of it—but if the movie is reverent about anything, it’s art and craft. And, of course, the land: living close to it, Birkin and Moon camping out, eating and drinking in the open air.
Birkin and Alice don’t get together. In others’ company, even her husband’s, they behave like a couple, the awareness of each other’s space, the attentiveness. Near his last day, she climbs up to the bell tower.
“So this is where you’ve been living all this time,” she says.
They could choose to say or do anything. Of all things, they talk about Moon. Moon has found the bones he was hired to find, Birkin says, and the Saxon basilica he was looking for.
“So you’ve both found what you came to find,” Alice says.
“I—,” Birkin can’t finish, but not because of his stammer.
He might as well already be gone. They’re not going to run away together. Morals? Dutifulness? Reticence? Fear? Or is time to blame, the summer running out before they’re ready?
A Month in the Country has endings built in: the end of the summer, of Birkin’s and Moon’s projects, of the pittance they’re being paid.
From the title onward, we know the story will be brief. Birkin and Moon don’t get close enough or have enough time for A Month in the Country to be a buddy movie, though they have real loyalty. Moon is outed to Birkin by a member of his former regiment, in a coincidental encounter that would only be plausible in a small country. In the next scene, Birkin and Moon take tea. Enough said.
They don’t seem to even have an entire summer’s worth of work, and, with their Home County accents and specialized vocations, they wouldn’t fit into Oxgodby on a permanent basis any better than the vicar does, however much the village agrees with them for the summer.
That’s the thing with summer movies and months in the country. You can only step out of time for so long. You get to recover, but you can’t remain.
“Where are you off to?” Moon asks Birkin.
“[To] wait for another church,” Birkin says.
“You’ll never get another one like this.”
I’m surprised by how obscure the movie seems to have become in the years since its release. It’s not offered by Netflix or my local library system, and is only available for purchase in used VHS or non-U.S. format DVD. A fan site is dedicated to urging UK Channel Four to restore it. But the entire movie is on YouTube, and most of the novel is on Google Books:
For me that will always be the summer day of summer days—a cloudless sky, ditches and roadside deep in grass, poppies, cuckoo pint, trees heavy with leaf, orchards bulging over hedge briars. And we rumbled along through it, turning away from a finger-post to Sutton-under-Whitestone Cliff and made for the pantile roofs of Kilburn where a joiner in his yard called to and was answered by an acquaintance in the cavalcade (p102).
The end, once you get to it, is so good and alive that the beginning feels unreal. How little you knew when you arrived, only a month ago, but not the same person.
Sarah Malone writes fiction and teaches composition. She tumbls here.
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