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'A Month in the Country'

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 18, 1988


Pat O'Connor
Colin Firth;
Kenneth Branagh;
Natasha Richardson
Parental guidance suggested

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Nothing is so tranquil as "A Month in the Country," in which sorrows are laid to rest like souls in a churchyard. Though it is spiritually uplifting, there's the feel of an elegy to this English soldier's story, a conscientious tone poem set in pastoral Yorkshire after the War to End All Wars.

In the summer of 1919, war-weary veteran Tom Birkin (Colin Firth) comes to the sleepy village of Oxgodby to uncover a medieval church mural that is believed to be hidden under thick coats of plaster. In the process of restoring the painting, "Christ and the Judgment," the shellshocked Birkin himself is restored. As the painter surely intended, the mural remains miraculous even after a thousand years, its images joining with the narrative to tell Birkin's story.

The search for truth is both high and low; the digging both internal and external; the revelations as plentiful as the enigmas. Birkin becomes intrigued not only with the mural but with the painter, finding clues to his identity in the paint. Coincidentally, another veteran, John Moon (Kenneth Branagh), is digging into the past in a field nearby. Though hired to find the remains of a church forebear, the archeologist is actually engaged in his own pursuits, both metaphoric and personal.

A very British relationship develops between the two, with lots of tea and simile. Theirs is a quiet fellowship of shared smokes and questions never asked in this dense and inconclusive story. Adapted from a novel by J.L. Carr, it includes a host of characters as allusive as the apple the vicar's wife (Natasha Richardson) gives Birkin. The two are obviously attracted, but the relationship remains pure, despite the temptations.

It's all rather Arthurian, with its chivalric hero on his spiritual quest, the atmosphere suffused, seeming to dance with once and future truths.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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