Feast of July
Look, I try to be good. I try to approach each new film fresh, on its own terms – even if it does have that dreaded label A Merchant Ivory Film affixed. I know that to simply dismiss a whole slice of cinema – tasteful, middlebrow, beautifully photographed – is an abhorrent critical practice. And haven’t there actually been one or two decent Merchant Ivory films, The Remains of the Day (1993) for instance? At least Feast of July – assigned to a new director (but already a television veteran) in the stable, Christopher Menaul – is vastly more watchable than that Ivory-handled dud, Jefferson in Paris (1995).
But, watching another lush, undoubtedly well-put-together Merchant Ivory adaptation of an old novel about love and desire strangled by the manners of another era, I find myself inevitably wondering: Why do they bother? What is the appeal? I continue to suspect the worst: that these films are made for audiences who only like cinema when it is legitimated by heavy reference to respectable canons of literature, theatre and music.
Feast of July is not as leaden or as obsequious as some other Merchant Ivory productions. Now that the literary oeuvres of D.H. Lawrence and E.M. Forster have been throughly excavated for screen adaptations, it’s H.E. Bates’ turn. This one comes hot on the heels of A Month by the Lake (John Irvin, 1995). It deftly combines a wash of pastoral lyricism, a dash of Thomas Hardy Tess-like tragedy, and a sombre note of working-class realism.
The plot begins grimly. Bella (Embeth Davidtz from Schindler’s List) is desperate and alone. She’s just suffered a miscarriage, and is now wandering about the countryside, looking for the cad who promised to marry her – that’s Arch (Greg Wilson), a right piece of work. Putting this whole sorry mess behind her, Bella settles into a family that kindly takes her in. Then the three adult sons in this family all take a shine to her, and tensions start to simmer.
Bella is an innocent who inadvertently creates havoc wherever she goes. It would have been easy for the filmmakers to portray her as an insidious Eve/femme fatale figure, driving men to their doom, but Davidtz is allowed to give this character a welcome, introspective depth. But here, to upset the balance of the piece, comes the fascinating male, armed with his pathos. (For more on this theme, see my discussion of male pathos in The Baby-Sitters Club .)
As the drama of the piece proceeds, Bella is virtually upstaged by the magnetic presence of Con (Ben Chaplin). Con wins Bella’s hand just as the devilish Arch reappears on the scene with his vulgar taunts. Con is a fascinating character: brooding, inarticulate, simple, soulful, yet powered by a subterranean propensity for violence. It’s this violence that is, in fact, the key to the pathos – for, as in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), the drive to violence registers as a species of Original Sin marked upon the male soul. Because of Con’s overpowering urge in this direction, the story eventually becomes as much his tragedy as Bella’s.
“There is no escape from the past”. This is the extremely well chosen promotional line that comes with Feast of July. It signals the obsessively recurring theme of many Merchant Ivory productions: the burden of history, and of an individual’s past sins, which return to haunt the protagonist (as in The Remains of the Day). However, the marketing tag may also announce an even darker truth: that the Merchant-Ivory team intend to never stop making pretty period pictures.
It’s all neatly done, but instantly forgettable. Of course, merely choosing to make a historical piece and giving it a glossy sheen does not immediately condemn a film to vacuous irrelevance. When some filmgoers derided Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993) as “Merchant Ivory fluff”, I fumed. But Feast of July, for all its unquestionable craft, is, alas, one of those stately historical films that indeed feels like it is still locked up in a chest of yesterday’s literary greats. It simply did not speak to me on any level. That could be my fault, but (at least in this case) I strongly suspect it’s the film’s sole responsibility.
Postscript: This review expresses a long-held antipathy on my part to a certain kind of cinema, but I did eventually turn around on the case of Merchant Ivory – when the quality of their work increased steeply (in my view) in the later 1990s. See the column “Halls of Ivory” in my Patreon PDF View from the Couch (2000-2002), as well as some reviews linked below.
© Adrian Martin January-February 1996