A MONTH BY THE LAKE (UK 1994) ***
Categorizing and pigeonholing aside, "A Month..." is first, last and foremost a superb showcase for Vanessa Redgrave as Miss Bentley. We never learn the first name of this Englishwoman who is around Ms. Redgrave's age (57 at the movie's release). We do know that for 15 years she has been coming to Italy's Lake Como with her father, who died recently. Miss Bentley is alone this year, 1937.
Her hotel-pension, in a prime location, caters to wealthy habitues without ostentation and in an atmosphere of general friendliness. For a change, Miss Bentley is now the only British client, perhaps because the shadow of war discourages her compatriots.
When newcomer Major Wilshaw (Edward Fox) appears -- an officer during the Great War, now a successful businessman--Miss Bentley engages in a round-about flirtation with him. She is a woman of great charm, alertness, vitality and joie de vivre. Psychologically and physically much younger than her age, she is the opposite of the stereotype (filmic or real) of the buttoned up, uptight spinster.
She has veritable class. Is it an accident that her name is that of the most prestigious automobile marques in the world, the twin to the Rolls Royce? That the classic white convertible of the Bonizzoni family, is, I believe, also a Bentley? That, fine amateur photographer that she is, she has as cameras the classy Rolleiflex and Leica?
The Major on the other hand is as typical of those terribly dull and stolid Englishmen that the Brits themselves satirize so well. His first significant contact with Miss Bentley comes when he talks her into play tennis with him. She is cheered on by University-age, upper-class Italian men who are undaunted by attractive older women. One of them, symbolically called Vittorio, played by the son of the inimitable Vittorio Gassman, is even more enterprising as he finds Miss Bentley desirable.
Miss Bentley beats the Major who peevishly tells her "But I thought you couldn't play tennis?" She replies "No, I only said I hadn't played in years." Much of the film is made up of such delicious repartees and tidbits.
Before a relationship can get going, there appears Miss Beaumont (Uma Thurman), a young American sent to finishing school in Switzerland. Now getting some hands on experience as nanny to the Bonizzoni girls, she's not good at it but she's good at using her youth to distract the Major.
Things happen, the sort that have to be savored slowly and cannot make chapter headings. The action is low-key and even the high points are not theatrical. When Miss Bentley and the Major miss a boat, as she gets a ride back on Vittorio's motorcycle, she is exhilarated. The Major is vexed. During a swim, Miss Bentley shows to the appreciative young men and to the Major that she is what, in many films, John Wayne used to call "a fine figure of woman."
Following an attack after a Fascist parade, Miss Bentley is "saved" by Vittorio, who makes overt advances. She rebuffs him humorously, even takes photographs of him that will soon add a minor twist to the story.
In a rapprochement between the Major and Miss Beaumont, there's a bit of inebriation and silly behavior. But Uma is no match for the fascinating Vanessa, whether in interest, personality or even looks. A happy ending is not far behind.
In the 1960 H.E. Bates novella the time frame was not specified. Theatre person and first-time scriptwriter Trevor Bentham has set the tale in the 1930s and invented the pre-final section about the expectation of World War II, a conflict that would separate the Italians from their foreign friends.
The "historical" background feels a bit like an afterthought. Little is made of the political mood of the times. The exact year remains vague until the last frames, unless you notice during the parade flags inscribed with "Anno XVII E.F." (Year 17 of the Fascist Era) which allows you to pinpoint the year as 1937.
I have some difficulty reconciling the lead roles and understanding what a charmer like Miss Bentley could see in the boring, unsexy, unimaginative Major, even though he shows some life at the end. But then the mysteries of the mind and the heart may add some realism to the tale.
The movie has a wonderful flow, keeps your attention with its refreshing lack of flamboyance and dramatics, has a convincing atmosphere and an easy-on-the-eyes landscape. All these fit perfectly with Vanessa Redgrave's performance which is as masterful and appealing as in my favorite Redgrave movie, the totally different "The Loves of Isadora" of a quarter-century ago.