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'Feast' is mostly a famine


"Feast of July" is like a parable from Uncle Remus or Aesop: It counsels wisely on the dangers of putting a hen in the foxhouse.

Set in turgid Victorian times, it watches breathlessly as what everyone knows must happen does happen when a "ruined" beauty wanders into town and is taken in by the father of three strapping sons. Can catastrophe be far behind? Of course not.

Derived from a story by H. E. Bates, who seems to have taken over from E. M. Forster as a font of genteel, free movie plots for the hoity-toity trade ("A Month by the Lake" is another Bates story), the movie begins with poor Bella Ford (Embeth Davidtz) wandering the hills in the throes of a miscarriage.

Her ordeal bloodily but barely survived, she wanders into a small shoe-manufacturing town, is spotted by the lamplighter and taken home. One look at the three studpups sucking down beans and mutton at the family table, and how their eyes hunger hotly over to Bella standing heaving and chilled in the doorway, and we know that tides of hormones have been released to surf toward tragedy. (Winner: Stephen Hunter, Mixed Metaphor Award, 1995.)

Why doesn't Mum (flinty Gemma Jones), who otherwise seems shrewd and clever, move early to stop the madness? The fake answer is that Mum has once upon a time lost a daughter, and in Bella's haggard ways, she sees an image of her lost child. the real answer is that if Mum were sensible, there'd be no story, and Bates would have had to get a real job instead of scribbling so assiduously in the attic.

So Bella settles in, trying to be a good girl, but the boys -- soldier Jedd (James Purefoy), cobbler Matty (Kenneth Anderson) and layabout Con (Ben Chaplin) -- begin to try in small and decisive ways to win her eye. The family tension increases in leaps and bounds, and soon enough one of the sons has left and the two others are slashing at each other with scythes.

But what is a Victorian melodrama without a rotter? Hey, Morrie, cue the rotter, stage left! The rotter is the slick, sideburned chappie (Greg Wise) with a plaid suit, a derby and a leer who got Bella with child to begin with, using the usual lines about love and marriage (but first comes the baby carriage).

Would Bates dare make him the man who forecloses mortgages and kicks widows and orphans out into the street? Yes, Bates would! Amazing! Now, a few months later, he happens to bump into Bella, even as she seems to be settling on sensitive, handsome Con, and like many a man who's had a woman once, he believes she's his forever. Nasty complications ensue.

Why does this movie exist? Do we really need to see the angels of doom gathering to squash hot-headed lovers at the hands of the rotter while knowing truly enough that sooner or later the rotter will get his? Do we need all this bitterness, anger, misbehavior and ill-feeling?

Clankingly melodramatic, it's not the revisionist irony of John Fowles' clever "The French Lieutenant's Woman" or even the archly witty re-creations of the Ivory-Merchant stuff (though Merchant produced); it's the deadweight straight-on literal heaviness of pure Victorian morality and could just as easily have been made in 1895 as 1995. As the great iron queen herself

might have so icily said, we are not amused.

"Feast of July"

Starring Embeth Davidtz and Ben Chaplin

Directed by Christopher Menaul

Released by Touchstone

Rated R (sexual material)


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