Feast Of July

on October 13, 1995 by Shlomo Schwartzberg
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Opened the Montreal fest. "Feast of July" boasts a strong pedigree -- it's executive produced by the Merchant/Ivory team -- but the final result is a lifeless husk of a movie, consistently intelligent but completely unmoving. Embeth Davidtz ("Schindler's List") portrays Bella, a young woman in 1883 England who's been impregnated and then abandoned by her lover (Greg Wise). As "Feast of July" begins, she is losing her baby to miscarriage. Desolate and without any means of support, Bella is taken in by a kindly lamplighter (Tom Bell), his wife ("Sense and Sensibility's" Gemma Jones) and three sons. Each son is smitten; each fits a different archetype: a boastful womanizer (James Purefoy), a sensitive shoemaker (Kenneth Anderson) and an eccentric, possibly disturbed layabout ("The Remains of the Day's" Ben Chaplin). Of course, it's the third with whom Bella falls in love.
   The predictability of Bella's becoming involved with the oddball sibling is only one of the film's weaknesses. The chief drawback is debut director Christopher Menaul's consistent underplaying of his story. Whether it's a moment of "high" emotion or a subtle scene, the tone remains the same, leaving any drama in the film -- like the baby -- stillborn.
   Within those parameters, Davidtz does what she can, but her character never goes beyond the stereotype of the Wronged Woman. The rest of the cast is similarly hobbled by underwritten characterization and Menaul's lackluster direction. As Bella's intended, Chaplin fails to display any inner demons; he never makes the indelible impression that is crucial for the story. Like the Merchant/Ivory films, "Feast of July" looks great, but it's not gritty, and the actors too often seem like extras set against a scenic tableau. Some audiences will relate to Bella's plight, but most will be stifling yawns. Starring Embeth Davidtz and Ben Chaplin. Directed by Christopher Menaul. Written by Christopher Neame. Produced by Henry Herbert and Christopher Neame. A Buena Vista release. Drama. Rated R for brief violence and sexuality. Running time: 114 min
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