There is no feast in Feast of July — only misunderstanding and sorrow leavened with a little hope. The movie's gorgeous late-Victorian period costumes and restrained stylishness mark it as a Merchant Ivory production, but its tone is distinctively bleaker and less aristocratic than that of such predecessors as Howards End and A Room With a View. If the core of the Merchant Ivory sensibility is the literary oeuvre of E.M. Forster, then Feast of July (based on the novel by H.E. Bates) represents a step toward Dickens — back slightly in time, away from plush London drawing rooms to a gloomy factory town in northern Britain, where taciturn women accept their gentle enslavement at the hands of rough men who drink, brawl, and speak with a faint brogue.
A sense of suffocation hangs over the town, Addisford, as persistently as the wet winter overcast. With the exception of a few moments, the movie is darkly lit and brooding, as if the weak sun has abandoned its efforts to burn through the clouds. The damp, gas-lit cobblestones and narrow, winding streets echo with whispers and footfalls. Are they those of a shadowy serial killer like Jack the Ripper, haunter of the Victorian imagination?
No, it's just the way the town looks, hard and not too welcoming. A village is an extended clan, and its inhabitants know who belongs and who doesn't. They keep track. Strangers stand out and are warily examined, especially strange women who come reeling into town in the dead of a blustery night — as does Bella Ford (Embeth Davidtz).
She's been up on the heath having a painful, bloody miscarriage, which briefly interrupts her search for the dead child's father, Arch Wilson (a shiftily handsome Greg Wise). Of course (as Bella remembers in painful flashbacks) he promised to marry her, then left with a promise to return but without spending the night.
Having ignominiously collapsed at the feet of one of Addisford's patriarchs, Ben Wainwright (Tom Bell), Bella is taken to shelter at the Wainwrights' house. There, still living with their parents, are three grown sons. The oldest, Jedd (James Purefoy), is an unduly self-confident soldier and cheerful bully to his siblings. The middle son, Matty (Kenneth Anderson), is a dreamy cobbler with his sights set on the bright lights of London. The youngest, Con (Ben Chaplin), combines Mediterranean handsomeness with a lack of social grace that's nonetheless attractive. With a single flickering glance at Bella, or a refusal to look at her, he tells the world what's in his heart. He's lonely, misunderstood, vulnerable — quite as much of a misfit as she.
But the emotional geometry between Bella and the Wainwright clan is more complicated and difficult than a single straight line between her and Con. All three brothers want her, and each makes his pitch in his own way, while their mother (Gemma Jones), a severe woman with no-nonsense hair and piercingly luminous blue eyes, looks on disapprovingly. It's hard to see her approving of anything, but she's right about Bella, who unwittingly casts a disruptive spell on the Wainwright boys.
Con has befriended a flock of pigeons that inhabit an abandoned mill near the river — as Bella discovers when she follows him there one Sunday after church. The birds, by alighting on Con's shoulders and accepting the food he gives them, suggest that his nature is essentially gentle. Standing in the lofty old building in a shaft of sunlight, birds gathered around him, he seems noble and Christ-like, the embodiment of peace on Earth.
But he isn't. He's temperamental and violent even when sober; he starts a fight with Jedd over the offering to Bella of a drink of water. Jedd parries Con's attacks with a contemptuous glee, but Mrs. Wainwright nearly pops her cork at the sight of her two sons brawling in the wheat fields. Later, when the dust settles, the boys' mother tells Bella that she must accept responsibility for the schisms she's opened in the family. “I've thought about that,” Bella says — a tricky line at the movie's central moment, when Bella understands that she's both innocent and guilty, an awkward figure whose every action causes repercussions. She's a fallen woman, but not an evil one, and Davidtz's portrayal perfectly captures this paradox. Bella understands that her presence is evil but that she herself isn't; she never loses the confidence that she's a decent person, no matter in what unflattering circumstances she finds herself. She never becomes unsympathetic, because she does not willfully cause trouble and she never stops looking for solutions that will do the greatest good for the most people.
The movie generates considerable erotic heat despite — or because of — its prim Victorian façades. A lingering touch of hands between Bella and Con leads to a glancing kiss, then a long, open-mouth one. There's something unexpectedly sensual about the simple rubbing of flesh against flesh; it's not innocent contact, but neither is it crudely genital, as it would be in our debased time. Feast of July, by drawing on the power of restraint, suggestion, and glimpses, is a reminder of the cost of modern candor to the erotic imagination. For Bella and the Wainwright brothers, the body and its pleasures are still largely a delicious mystery; freedom has not yet devalued sex by making it ordinary.
Yet that mystery leads to disaster — death and more death, grief, bitter division. The end of the film is like a Shakespeare tragedy: Only Bella is left standing, while everyone she has loved has fallen. She's like a black widow with a conscience — a woman who understands simultaneously that she's sown an enormous field of grief and that it was her unavoidable fate to do so. As she stands at the prow of the ship that will carry her to Ireland in the film's last scene, she wears an expression of sadness, hope, and resolution. It's the look of a woman, not a girl.
Feast is subdued about the unbreakable link between desire and death, tragedy and renewal, but that circularity is the film's eternal theme, one that sounds as clearly now as then.
Feast of July opens Fri, Oct. 20, at the Embarcadero Center in