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‘Country Life’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 04, 1995


Michael Blakemore
Michael Blakemore;
John Hargreaves;
Greta Scacchi;
Sam Neill;
Kerry Fox
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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From all the hubbub and insanity, you'd think the queen herself were about to arrive.

"Just think," bellows Uncle Jack (John Hargreaves) in the boisterous early moments of Michael Blakemore's "Country Life," "a person of real culture . . . a man who rubbed elbows with George Bernard Shaw himself . . . under my very own roof."

The illustrious figure referred to is Jack's brother-in-law Alexander (Michael Blakemore), a gray eminence returned in the wake of World War I to the family sheep farm in New South Wales after a long, distinguished tenure as drama critic in London.

In Jack's eyes, Alex is the one who got away, the brilliant lad who followed his dreams, leaving the raw Australian wilderness and the coarse local girls behind for the whirlwind of great minds and ravishing young actresses.

Also left behind was a young daughter he had with Jack's sister; after her mother's death and her father's departure, the girl was raised by Jack and his great aunt Maude (Robyn Cruze). Now grown into an openhearted if slightly plain young woman, Sally (Kerry Fox) hasn't seen her father since she was a little girl. And she has never so much as laid eyes on Deborah (Greta Scacchi), the intoxicatingly beautiful bride Alex has brought back with him.

According to Blakemore, who wrote, directed and plays the lead in this innocuous comic rondelet of manners, "Country Life" is based on "an idea from Chekhov's `Uncle Vanya' "—specifically, the contrast between country and city life. And in its seeming superficiality, its subtle shifts from comic to tragic, its atmosphere of loss and missed opportunity, the film does manage to convey some of the soul of the playwright. What it doesn't do is stir the blood. Blakemore's notion of transplanting the action to the farthest corner of the British Empireprovides an exotic, almost primordial backdrop for the narrative and a thousand fresh details to absorb. Somehow, though, the lusty spirit of the place doesn't work its way into the filmmaking. There is one marvelously raucous scene in which the hired help gets into the shipment of French wines that Alex has given to the household, but for the most part the production feels tepid and predictable.

To say that these people are cut off from the rest of the civilized world is a gargantuan understatement. Still, men like Dr. Askey (Sam Neill), who caters to the family's medical needs, are advanced enough in their political thinking to realize that the Aussies have been getting a raw deal from the British. Actually, Neill's sly, recessive performance as the free-thinking doctor is some of the most confident work this underrated actor has done in a while. Though he barely seems to move a muscle, he—along with Fox, who gives a striking performance—makes the strongest impression of anyone in the cast.

Jack probably gets the movie's biggest laughs, but Hargreaves has to work awfully hard for them. And, playing a proper lady bored by the wonders of nature, the usually vibrant Scacchi seems waxy and false. Blakemore is effective as the vain, complaining old fraud Alex, but overall, in both his acting and his direction, there is always a touch of the middlebrow. In most cases, this approach has an energizing effect; what is lost in subtlety is made up for in vigor and accessibility. In "Country Life," there is no such trade-off; it's dumbed-down and enervating.

Country Life, at the Cineplex Odeon Avalon, is rated PG-13.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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