A Month in the Country [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (2nd August 2016).
The Film

“A Month in the Country” (1987)

Set in 1920, World War I veteran Tom Birkin (played by Colin Firth) is commissioned to restoration work at a church in the rural Yorkshire town of Oxgodby. The commissioned work is to uncover a medieval painting under the upper wall of the church, which is run by the Reverend Keach (played by Patrick Malahide) who is not entirely supportive of the project as it would partially be desecrating the church walls and the congregation would be distracted. Also working nearby the church is James Moon (played by Kenneth Branagh) who is an archaeologist excavating the area also commissioned to find a lost grave. Birkin is a shellshocked veteran of war, who has developed a slight stutter in speech and keeps mostly to himself whenever possible. Moon on the other hand is also a war veteran but quite the talkative and inquisitive type. The two outsiders in the small community make an unusual pair working under similar circumstances but slowly but surely Birkin starts to open up.

The original short novel of “A Month in the Country” was written by J.L. Carr in 1980 and won the Guardian Fiction Prize that year. Seven years later, it was made into a theatrical feature film by Euston Films / Channel 4. Irish director Pat O’Connor and screenwriter Simon Gray adapted the book into a screenplay with a few changes here and there. The voice over narration of Birkin looking back at the time was removed to only have a present-narrative visually. The third WWI veteran character was also removed from the screenplay version. The very end shot of Birkin looking back was also added in - albeit unnecessary. As the production called for the main characters of Birkin and Moon to be in their mid-twenties, Colin Firth in his first leading film role was cast as Birkin and Kenneth Branagh in his film debut was cast as Moon. 24 year old Natascha Richardson was cast in the role as the wife of the combover sporting Reverend Keach Patrick Malahide who was nearly 20 years her senior. Other notable stars included Jim Carter as the family man Mr. Ellerbeck and Richard Vernon who played Colonel Hebron, but it is clear that the standouts were by the young cast members in their earliest film roles who would later go on to much larger careers.

“A Month in the County” is like a Merchant Ivory production crossed with “Akenfield”. The England of the early 20th century in the Merchant Ivory films such as “Howards End” and “Room with a View” were lyrical and poetic visual films that truly showed the landscapes, period dressings, and mannerisms. Interesting to know that James Ivory was an American and Ismail Merchant was born in British India, so they were technically outsiders looking in. For ”A Month in the Country”, O’Connor being Irish set out to make the film with “Englishness” as an outsider’s point of view. ”Akenfield” is about a young man living in a rural town who longs of leaving to find himself while ”A Month in the Country” is about outsiders coming in to find themselves. While Birkin starts to uncover the painting which depicts hell, he doesn’t seem too shocked by it at all. He has seen hell on the battlefield already. As he states the Bible’s version of hell is only terrible to the ones who believe it. As he’s seen merciless killing, seen children have to suffer the effects of ill health - such as the young Lucy who has tuberculosis, he has questioned the absence of God and has given religion and faith the backseat. As he starts to slowly fall in love with the Reverend’s wife, he does restrain himself and so does she, even though the two share an undeniable mutual attraction. It is through her kindness, as well as Mr. Ellerbeck’s children and Moon that Birken is able to start not only to restore the painting but restore himself. The film is not perfect in any sense. Birken's character and to an extent Moon's character are the ones that are fully realized but Mrs. Keach doesn't seem to have enough backstory - like why did she marry a much older man and what is her background? Some very minor subplots such as the sick girl doesn't return (we'll have to assume she died sometime), and a few others go unresolved. Also the aforementioned ending with Birken doesn't match the ending of the book and is done a bit awkwardly.

Released theatrically in 1987 and 1988 in various countries, the critics gave warm responses to the adaptation, though funnily some reviews pointed out that most of the cast were “nobodies” but that would change in a few years time. But throughout the years, ”A Month in the Country” became an obscure entry to the filmographies of the cast and crew. It seemingly disappeared from the public eye and home video for many years. In 2003, Poet and fan Glyn Watkins tried to have a print of the film screened for a release event of his latest poetry collection at the National Museum of Photography but the museum had a problem - it seemed that no one had a copy of the film. They contacted various organizations, agencies, film libraries, but nothing was found. Watkins himself found information that in 1999 Warner Brothers organized the National Film Theatre's Branagh season, which screened the film. Warner claimed that they did not have a print, but with further investigation, a print was found in a Warner warehouse. The film was finally screened, but to reach a further audience the UK distributor and rightsholder Channel 4 used the print for a DVD release in 2004. The quality of the print and transfer was not ideal, but it was the only way people could see finally see the film again.

In 2008 with a pristine print located at the Academy Film Archive in Los Angeles, the film underwent a full high definition restoration, which was used on the US Blu-ray by Twilight Time and this UK dual format Blu-ray and DVD set by the BFI. It’s crazy to think a film less than 30 years ago could become a “lost film” but ”A Month in the Country” came very close. Very fortunately audiences are able to experience this beautiful and mesmerizing film.

Note this is a region ALL Blu-ray which can be played back on any Blu-ray player worldwide

Video

The BFI presents the film in 1080p in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio in the AVC MPEG-4 codec. The film was most likely screened in 1.66:1 in Europe and 1.85:1 in America at the time, so this aspect ratio is not the “original theatrical” but is a compromised framing between the European and American framing. Picture is extremely clear, but there is one shot around the 8 minute mark that is extremely blurry, but this seems to be inherent to the original photography and not the transfer, and only lasts for two shots. Colors are exceptionally beautiful with green grass shimmering and the detail in the picture is exceptionally sharp for the most part. In most scenes grain is very minimal, while some shots grain is extremely heavy - most likely from zooming in on the image, causing inconsistency from shot to shot. Skintones are very white making things a little too bright for the most part and dark areas sometimes not seeming dark enough. As for film damage, there is little to none. I have not seen the US Twilight Time Blu-ray released last year but going by screencaps seen online, this seems to be the same source and transfer.

The runtime for the film is 96:18.

Audio

English LPCM 1.0
The original mono track is presented in lossless LPCM. The dialogue is easy to hear and there are no particular instances of damage to audio track. The score by Howard Blake, even in mono sounds wonderful. Many of the scenes have been ADRed in studio such as the rainy outdoor scenes and the interior of the echoey church and they are extremely noticeable, with dialogue sounding straight from a mic rather than a slight echo to the environment.

There are optional English HoH subtitles for the main feature in a white font. Considering some of the hard to understand Yorkshire accents of the locals it comes as a relief for non-natives to the local dialect. Strangely the US Blu-ray from Twilight Time omitted English subtitles, even though they almost always include them on releases. You would think Americans would be the ones wanting an English subtitle option for the accents…

Extras

BFI presents “A Month in the Country” in a dual format Blu-ray + DVD set, with identical content on both discs.

DISC ONE (Blu-ray)

* The Film

Audio Commentary with Film Historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman
Originally recorded for the US Blu-ray, Twilight Time’s Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman give a fun banter back and forth on the film, which Kirgo is a big fan of and is excited to having it being re-released. They talk about the Englishness of the production, deconstruct the themes of religion, war, homosexuality, and insight about the disappearance of the film for the long period of time. Kirgo also gets quite emotional talking about Richardson, who died in a skiing accident 2009.
in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Isolated Music and Effects in LPCM 2.0
Also carried over from the US Blu-ray is the isolated audio without dialogue. Howard Blake’s score along with effects such as raindrops, train whistles, and footsteps are included. If you’d like to redub the entire film, here is your chance. This is a 2.0 track, but unfortunately the score is not presented in stereo but in the same mono sound as the film itself.
in LPCM 2.0 mono

An Interview with Pat O'Connor (21:09)
This 2016 interview with director Pat O’Connor is exclusively for this BFI release. He talks about originally reading the novella, working with writer Simon Gray, examples of what they changed from the book, and recalls memories of the actors, plus the initial critical response.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0

An Interview with Colin Firth (39:51)
This 2016 interview with the lead Colin Firth is also exclusively for this BFI release. He talks about having to play the stuttering lead years before his Oscar winning performance as the stuttering King in “The King’s Speech”, about being able to meet the author, how sad it was that the film disappeared for so long from public knowledge, and much more.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0

Theatrical Trailer (2:05)
The original trailer is presented here in the same ratio as the main feature, but not remastered.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English LPCM 1.0

12 Page Booklet
BFI includes a 12 page booklet with the following content: ”The Falling Man” an essay by BFI curator Jo Botting,”J.L. Carr and A Month in the Country” an essay by author, critic, and co-host of the podcast “Blacklisted” Andy Miller, film credits, special features credits, and notes about the presentation.

The BFI Blu-ray one ups the US Twilight Time Blu-ray by licensing all of their supplements and adding their own exclusive interviews. A great selection of extras but I guess Branagh was too busy for an interview. It would have been interesting to hear his thoughts about his first film role.

Overall

It’s still amazing that a movie less than 30 years featuring currently major film stars in their early roles would be nearly lost due to mismanagement, but it almost happened. ”A Month in the Country” is an fine English drama dealing with war, trauma, relationships, religion, art, and hope with fine performances in the beautiful countryside. BFI’s Blu-ray has very good picture and audio with a fine selection of extras including all from the US Blu-ray. Very recommended.

The Film: B Video: A- Audio: A Extras: A Overall: B+

 


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