Based on British writer H.E. Bates’ novella, A Month by the Lake is a gently sophisticated variation on the theme of the loner’s vacation that leads to romance. The year is 1937, and the impending European chaos is, at least for many, still a rumor. The middle-aged Miss Bentley (Vanessa Redgrave) arrives at a resort on Lake Como in northern Italy. Though she has never traveled alone before, she is comfortable there because she used to visit often with her recently deceased father.
Moreover, Miss Bentley is not easily daunted, has a sense of adventure, and is an avid amateur photographer. She extends her stay among the lush lawns and garden terraces after beginning an oblique and sometimes prickly relationship with one retired Major Wilshaw (Edward Fox). Though Miss Bentley is a bit awkward, Redgrave makes her gawkiness appealing and spirited. She pursues her photos with a sense of wonder and inquisitiveness, and goes after life with an eager stride. For those who have known Redgrave’s work primarily for the serious roles—both Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams called her “the greatest living actress of our time”—this fresh, quirky, and engaging performance lends additional perspective.
With Hitler’s early land-grabs and atrocities already begun in Europe and widespread conflict looming only two or three years out, the wistful, tender tone and burnished palette of A Month by the Lake are layered with poignancy; and the film’s humor is the sort that brings smiles instead of laughter. The rituals of discovery that Miss Bentley and the Major adopt, with the accompanying clashes of pride and will, reveal both innocence and maturity, and the story unfolds with eccentric whimsy. The light plot thickens only slightly when a spoiled young American woman (Uma Thurman), bored with her job as nanny for an Italian family, arrives on the scene and engages in her own stratagems with the older man. It’s not a particularly attractive ingénue-vamp role. The young Thurman—who proved her mettle in drama early on and eventually became more adept with comedy—could have used more guidance here, but there is one extended set-piece in which she flirts with the major at a dinner party that she pulls off beautifully.
There are scenes in which Trevor Bentham’s screenplay and John Irvin’s direction don’t quite live up to the expert standards set by the two lead actors’ performances. Fox is more than deft in suggesting the Major’s occasional obtuseness without the sometimes redundant line or the camera lingering too long to underscore the point; and Redgrave is masterfully insistent on conveying genuine emotion even when the dialogue or action skirts too near fey, clumsy farce.
Like Enchanted April, Stealing Beauty, or Mama Mia, this is a film that evokes a beautiful holiday locale so powerfully that it can take us out of ourselves. Redgrave and Fox give A Month by the Lake real comedic elegance, and Lake Como—itself a grand and glorious character, radiantly indelible in every scene—gives this lark an expansive spirit. It’s a stylish little entertainment for keeping the dog days at bay.
– Hadley Hury