“A Month in the Country” (1987), based on the 1980 novel of the same name by J.L. Carr, starred Patrick Malahide as the Reverend J.G. Keach, who reluctantly employs World War I veteran Tom Birkin (Colin Firth) to restore a medieval fresco in his Oxgodby, Yorkshire church. Birkin has his own demons to overcome, as he’s suffering acutely from PTSD (“shell shock“, in WWI parlance) and rejection by his estranged wife.
Arrival at Oxgodby
We first see Birkin in the throes of a nightmare, calling out for “Vinnie” as he relives warfare in what looks to be No Man’s Land, giving us a glimpse of his background. We next see him on a train bound for the country, where his trembling hands and facial tics offer further evidence that he’s still in a process of recovery. He gets off the train at Oxgodby in the pouring rain, refuses stationmaster Ellerbeck’s (Jim Carter) offer of an umbrella (revealing a stutter as he does so), and sets off cross-country at once for the church. It being a very small village, Ellerbeck already knows who he is and why he’s there.
Arriving at the church, Birkin drops his belongings and tears around it eagerly, while being watched at a distance by Keach (who has an umbrella, of course) with a mixture of curiosity and nonplussedness. Birkin goes inside the church to find scaffolding already set up at the nave (the mural itself is hidden under a coating of paint), and he’s followed inside by Keach, whose first words to him are a somewhat unfriendly interrogation rather than a greeting: “What were you doing? Just now, outside.” It’s evident from Keach’s accent that he, too, is a transplant to the area, which is somewhat reminiscent of Malahide’s later role as the Reverend Edwin Sorleyson in “December Bride“. In his halting stutter, Birkin explains that he was checking the rain gutters, because if they weren’t working properly, the mural would already be ruined; Keach replies frostily that if Birkin had waited to ask him, he could have told him they were functioning perfectly. Then he finally gets around to introductions: “I’m Keach, by the way. Reverend J.G.”
A Reluctant Employer
As they talk, Keach seems visibly uncomfortable with Birkin’s stutter (which actually gets a bit worse as he talks to Keach), and also with the prospect of Birkin living in his belfry while he’s doing the restoration. However, Birkin says he really has no other choice as he’s “somewhat short” at the moment and he won’t mind the bell-ringing. Birkin appears to know his stuff as he estimates the mural’s date to be circa 1430, but Keach seems more interested in cementing his fee at 25 guineas, with absolutely no extras. As it turns out, it’s the church’s executive, rather than Keach, who are most interested in the mural’s restoration. In fact, Keach has been somewhat marginalized in the process; he was left out of the decision-making, but he brushes it off as “an oversight”. Keach tells a startled Birkin that he won’t even mind if Birkin “touches it up a little” (bringing to mind the recent Ecce Homo painting incident in Spain) , “as long as it’s appropriate,” but Keach will have final approval of his work. Keach then bluntly states that he really doesn’t support Birkin’s employment (at least he’s honest), but the terms of a parishioner’s bequest state that Keach won’t get £1,000 towards his church’s fabric fund until the mural is restored, so he has no choice. Fabric blackmail! Keach is also worried that the uncovered mural will be too much of a distraction for his congregation. He then abruptly departs, without leaving Birkin so much as a lamp or blanket for his own comfort.
Birkin’s not alone at the Oxgodby church; amateur archaeologist James Moon (Kenneth Branagh) , another World War I veteran, is camped out in a bell tent in the churchyard for the summer. Moon’s an affable sort, and he’s nominally there to find the bones of Miss Hebron’s ancestor – Miss Hebron being the parishioner whose bequest is also holding Keach’s fabric fund hostage – though he’s really hoping to find an Anglo-Saxon basilica. He’s dealing with his own shell shock by sleeping in a grave-sized hole in the ground inside his tent, which he tells Birkin makes him feel “safe”. He also has a Military Cross medal amongst his belongings that he appears embarrassed or reluctant to discuss.
It seems Birkin isn’t destined to get much peace while restoring the mural, as he’s regularly visited by stationmaster Ellerbeck’s children, Kathy (Vicki Arundale) and Edgar (Martin O’Neil), whose father wants them to take advantage of the “educational” opportunity, along with their (annoying) gramophone. He also meets Keach’s much younger and very attractive wife, Alice (Natasha Richardson), who’s as warm, outgoing, and friendly as her husband is cold, remote, and forbidding. It’s a very intriguing (mis?)match. He’s a bit incredulous (and disappointed) at first to find that she’s Keach’s wife rather than his daughter or niece or something. There seems to be a mutual instant attraction (or maybe it’s mostly on Birkin’s side), and he’s so much at ease with Alice that his stammer all but disappears when he talks to her. They connect to the extent that he’s even willing to show his work in progress on the mural to her.
Birkin also gets the opportunity to contrast Keach’s “old school” approach to services with the fiery sermons given by Methodist preacher Ellerbeck in Oxgodby’s other church. In contrast to Keach’s chilly reception, the Ellerbecks regularly invite Birkin for big Sunday dinners and the kids effortlessly rope him into various family activities. They seem to take his presence very much as a given; he even ends up standing in for Ellerbeck for a sermon, though he talks about the mural rather than preaching. He is, however, very shaken by a visit to a young friend of theirs who’s dying of tuberculosis.
The Keaches at Home
We get our next glimpse of the Keaches’ home life when Birkin pays a visit to ask about his salary. The good Reverend doesn’t hear his ring because he’s practicing the violin, but Birkin is shown in by Alice, who describes quite frankly how the barrenness of their house bothers her – and the house is seriously empty of all but the most rudimentary of furnishings. Symbolic of a barren marriage, perhaps? Yet the Reverend does have some art in his soul, as evinced by his (rather good) violin playing (according to patrickmalahide.net, Malahide learned seven minutes of Mendelssohn for the scene, though only fifteen seconds were used – too bad!). He seems rather startled to be caught unawares at his practicing; without his jacket on, he’s effectively “exposed” and vulnerable. What follows is one of the most stilted, uncomfortable, and awkward conversations one can imagine, with all three characters keeping a huge amount of physical distance amongst themselves; everyone’s isolated. The discomfort is almost palpable as Alice gamely tries to keep the small talk going about the lack of furniture, but is stymied by Keach’s clipped, monosyllabic answers. “The rooms, we don’t know how to fill them, do we?” she says, to which Keach replies, “Ah, no, that’s true.”
Keach seems on more comfortable ground when Birkin brings up his salary; he’s expecting a receipt though Birkin hasn’t yet received the funds from Mossop (Tim Barker), Keach’s sexton. Birkin declines Keach’s offer to see the rest of the incredibly empty house, and in one very interesting and telling moment, asks if Birkin can show Alice the mural. “Oh, I’ve already seen it,” says Alice cheerfully, to which Keach replies (with just a bit of a glare), “Oh, did you. I hadn’t realized.” It’s a tiny fraction of the scene, but it expresses in a subtle way a great deal about the communication and interaction that is, or isn’t, going on in the Keach household.
Alice offers to show Birkin the way back to the church through the wood, passing her rose bushes on the way; “I spend a lot of time on them,” she notes, “I don’t know why because there really isn’t anyone to look at them but me.” (Wasted fertility and loneliness in one sentence?) She gives Birkin a rose and he even musters up the courage to compliment her – “Many men would say that you were beautiful, Mrs. Keach,”- before he’s shockingly interrupted by a gunshot (Colonel Hebron is out hunting rabbits nearby), which triggers his PTSD. Later, he presses the rose in one of his books.
An Excursion to Town
Their next encounter occurs when Birkin is dragged to a nearby town by the Ellerbecks to assist with buying a secondhand organ for their chapel. Birkin extracts himself as soon as politely possible, and by chance notices Alice and the Reverend Keach shopping (surely not for furniture! though at least he takes her on outings). No words are exchanged, though Alice does notice Birkin staring and eats an apple in his direction (Eve symbolism?) with a glance at Keach as if to say she can’t get away. He’s interrupted there by one of Moon’s former comrades-in-arms, who, recognizing Birkin as the fellow working on the church, informs him that Moon spent the last six months of the war in the “Glasshouse” for “buggering his batman”. To his credit, Birkin doesn’t react with shock, though he is thoughtful. He and Moon sort of obliquely discuss Moon’s past afterwards, and Birkin doesn’t reject him.
An Ancient Grave
Moon finally discovers the ancient remains of Piers Hebron he’s been searching for, along with a crescent medallion, which also ties in with one of the subjects of Birkin’s mural, a man with a crescent scar who’s being thrown into perdition. Moon and Birkin deduce that Hebron converted to Islam while on crusade, perhaps under duress, and continued to follow Islam even after his return. After his death, he was buried outside of the church grounds as a non-Christian. Both of their mysteries are solved at one fell swoop. It’s also Moon who points out that Birkin’s stammer and tics have gradually been disappearing over the summer; Birkin himself hadn’t even noticed that he’s been healing. Both he and the fresco are undergoing a kind of rebirth.
Finishing the Job
Keach arrives for his final inspection of the mural (the only time he looks at it) and pronounces Birkin’s work finished to his satisfaction. He seems more eager to pay Birkin off and get him out of his belfry than anything; when Birkin asks what he thinks of the mural, he answers, with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, “Well… it’s there.” A contest of wills develops when Birkin says he’ll need the scaffolding for several more days (but refuses to say why, except that he isn’t quite finished yet) and Keach replies that he’ll have the scaffolding removed anyway; Birkin then threatens to go to the executive, tell them Keach prevented him from completing the work, and deprive Keach of his fabric fund if he isn’t allowed to finish. He fights dirty!
However, he also triggers a surprising set of personal revelations from the heretofore tightly wound and close-lipped Keach: “I know how you see me, Mr. Birkin. The way you want to! You’ve never thought what it’s like for a man like me, have you?” He goes on to express his frustration with his calling and his congregation in Oxgodby, who’ve lost the sense of awe and mystery they should have around religious services. They attend out of habit, or only for services marking harvests or midnight masses, “pagan salutes to the passing of the seasons” for which he isn’t even needed (and Keach is almost tearful here). He’s especially frustrated that he seems most useful to his congregation for weddings and particularly funerals, because he “sees to the orderly disposal of their dead.” He sort of apologizes for his rant, or at least acknowledges it: “Am I embarrassing you? Embarrassing others is a grave sin, is it not,” then ends on a note of conciliation (or perhaps surrender), saying that he’ll have the scaffolding removed when Birkin is done. It’s a short scene, but a powerful one; it gives us a glimpse of the fire and passion in Keach’s soul, and his frustration at feeling stuck somewhere where he isn’t appreciated and his calling has lost its value.
Birkin’s final meeting with Alice is equally powerful, if more understated. She comes up to the belfry to bid him farewell, sexual tension and attraction are so thick in the air you could cut it with a knife… and nothing happens. They don’t act on it – though Birkin comes within a tantalizing hair’s breadth of declaring his feelings. It’s very much a subversion of what one would expect in a modern “happy ending”, yet it works because the characters remain true to themselves (and so does Keach, for that matter). I suppose one could regard it as sad or bitter-sweet, but I very much saw it as the characters not violating their principles – though they may have very badly wanted to. Whether their relationship would ever have worked remains a giant “what if”.
Prior to his departure, Moon brings Birkin a letter from his estranged wife, Vinnie, whom Birkin thinks will probably want to start over again with their relationship. Moon’s off to a dig in the Middle East, and Birkin thinks he’ll try to get another church restoration. They take leave of each other without openly expressing their friendship or articulating what it’s meant to them. Birkin departs much the same way he came – on foot, although the weather’s now bright and sunny and, as Moon pointed out earlier, Birkin’s tics are gone and his stammer has almost completely receded. He’s undergone a sort of healing through the entire experience. As Birkin leaves, he looks back and sees an old man entering the church, who turns out to be… Birkin, from many years in the future. He’s smiling and contented, and has come full circle.
A Wonderful, Overlooked Film
This was a simply wonderful little movie, with so much being shown, not told, by the actors. Branagh, Firth, and Richardson were all masterful at bringing their characters to life, with their wounds, flaws, loneliness, and strengths, and making the audience feel what they felt. It was a small slice of their interactions over the summer. It’s a bit disappointing that this movie didn’t get the recognition that it deserved!
Of course, I have to single out Patrick Malahide for specific praise. He brilliantly conveyed everything from Keach’s repression and strictness (and distaste for anything to do with the mural), to the exquisite discomfort and awkwardness of the discussion after his aborted violin practice session, to the unexpected passion and anger of a man disillusioned with his calling and the people he’s supposed to serve (maybe some loneliness, too?) with great subtlety and nuance. He made Keach an extremely fascinating character with a sort of iceberg-like “90% under the surface” that we only caught glimpses of.
I saw this movie as a digital file ripped from VHS (accounting for the size and somewhat less than pristine quality of my screen grabs!), and I understand that it’s only very recently gotten a re-release as a “manufactured on demand” DVD from Amazon. I’m very glad it was re-released on DVD, because it’s a marvelous-looking production on what was apparently a very tight budget – and extremely faithful to its source novel to boot. I’m looking forward to seeing a visually tidied-up version of a great story.
If you’d rather not wait for the DVD, you can watch “A Month in the Country” in its entirety online (VHS rip version; sorry about the Spanish subtitles) or scroll down for a gallery.