Vanessa Redgrave is a marvelous actress, but she is not a performer one immediately associates with charm or warmth. So it is a delightful surprise to report that in "A Month by the Lake" she displays both of those qualities in full bloom.
Redgrave stars as Miss Bentley, also the film's narrator in this Merchant-Ivory wannabe and there are overtones of a number of films with similar sensibilities, chiefly "A Room With a View," "The Remains of the Day" and "Enchanted April."
The setting is 1937, and Miss Bentley is taking a holiday at a favorite Italian resort on gorgeous Lake Como, where she vacationed annually with her father until he died. The times are tenuous, with one world war over and another on the brink, and this subtext is underlined by marching soldiers in the streets, military planes looming overhead and a general tension in the air.
Though she is enjoying herself, Miss Bentley isn't sure she will stay much longer until another Brit arrives the stiff, seemingly humorless Major Wilshaw (Edward Fox). It's more than the fact that he is the only other English-speaking person at the villa (not counting those vulgar Americans, of course). Miss Bentley sees something in him that is not readily apparent and feels an attraction. (She claims to have made the judgment based on his ears.)
So, she blithely but shyly pursues him . . . without much success. Then, Miss Beaumont (Uma Thurman) shows up a young American nanny hired by an Italian family that is staying at the same villa. Miss Beaumont has no interest in the major, but when she flirts with him upon his early departure, he takes it the wrong way. The major decides to stay after all and foolishly pursues her. So it is up to Miss Bentley to come up with a plan to win the major over.
"A Month By the Lake" is a real rarity, a romantic comedy-drama about a middle-aged couple something Hollywood has completely forgotten how to do. And Redgrave and Fox are more than game for their roles, relishing the nuance and subtlety of their characters, as well as the over-the-top moments afforded them when emotions are expressed or someone has too much to drink. (The tennis game is a real highlight.)
They both are terrific, with Fox investing some shading into what could have been merely a pompous twit but it is Redgrave who is absolutely winning from beginning to end even when the character is called upon to look silly. Thurman, on the other hand, seems surprisingly artificial and over the top. But the rest of the supporting players are all delightful.
Director John Irvin, who is more readily associated with action films like "Hamburger Hill," "Dogs of War," "Next of Kin" and Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Raw Deal," has tackled this kind of material before with last year's "Widow's Peak" and the much-better "Turtle Diary" of a few years earlier.
The material here is light, but Irvin's direction seems a bit awkward, in particular with the subtleties. It's hard to avoid thinking about what the Merchant-Ivory team might have done with it.
Thanks in large part to Red-grave's central performance, however (as well as the beautiful cinematography and a lovely musical score), the film is generally quite sweet and a lot of fun.
"A Month by the Lake" is rated PG for brief partial nudity, mild vulgarity, mild profanity and some violence.