Somewhere after the midpoint of John Irvin's "A Month by the Lake," Uma Thurman, playing an American nanny for rich Italians in 1937 Italy, blurts out an alcohol-amplified insult to Edward Fox, her middle-aged companion at an evening party.
"You're so boring," Thurman says, accent on the last word. "I want to have fun."
Well, so do we. We've come to watch a movie billed as light romantic comedy, set on the glorious shores of Lake Como, which has been the playground for generations of wealthy Europeans, and all we've done so far is watch a bunch of mostly middle-aged bluebloods behave as if they were in the full flush of adolescence.
Thurman and Alessandro Gassman, the young beach boy who fancies himself a Lothario for vacationing matrons, aren't that far removed from their comings-of-age. But Fox and co-star Vanessa Redgrave, both of whom were born in the year of the film's setting, are, and "A Month by the Lake" is their story.
Adapted from a novella by H.E. Bates, "A Month" takes the form of a memory piece, a reflection by a woman looking back on her first solo vacation on Lake Como and to her meeting with the man who would become her husband.
It happened "during the last fantastic summer before the war," Redgrave's voice informs us over the opening credits, as we watch her come ashore at the hillside villa where she and her late father had vacationed for the preceding 16 years. She'd had a long romance with a married man, we'll learn, but as she arrives here, on the eve of the Second World War, she has the wiles of a helpless schoolgirl, and becomes infatuated with the first man she sees with well-shaped ears.
"You can tell a lot about a person by his ears," Redgrave's Miss Bentley tells Fox's Major Wilshaw, a wealthy Brit on holiday, and she assures him and us that his are worth a thousand words.
There are no close-ups of those expressive ears, so we have to take Miss Bentley's passion for the major on faith. As the diminutive Fox, who's towered over by both Redgrave and Thurman, plays him, Major Wilshaw is a major loser, a self-absorbed, supercilious twit whose stiff upper lip quivers at the first sign of rejection.
She, on the other hand, is a live wire, a woman of boundless energy, curiosity, patience and determination, stepping aside while the major makes a fool of himself chasing the flirtatious nanny, inventing a fictitious affair with young Gassman to stir the major's jealousy, devoting days and nights to massaging his overstuffed ego.
"A Month by the Lake" would have been a much better story if Miss Bentley had simply slept with the beach boy and learned to play the mandolin.
Irvin, who has produced some noted BBC shows ("Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy") and directed some terrible Hollywood movies ("Raw Deal," "Next of Kin"), sort of waits out his story rather than pushing it forward. The actors are left to ham it up innocuously while their characters wait for the story to overtake them.
There are allusions to the dark storm building over Europe, and one unnerving scene of ardent Fascists parading through the cobbled streets of a medieval lakeside village. Obviously, we're looking upon a moment sandwiched between tranquillity and the apocalypse.
But nothing of substance ever really seems to be at stake. The war is far removed from these idlers' minds, and the romance between the gushing Redgrave and the comically pathetic Fox fades as quickly as a ripple on that immense and beautiful lake.
* MPAA rating: PG for moments of sensuality. Times guidelines: Adult romance, gently portrayed.
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'A Month by the Lake'
Vanessa Redgrave: Miss Bentley
Edward Fox: Major Wilshaw
Uma Thurman: Miss Beaumont
Alida Valli: Mrs. Fascioli
Alessandro Gassman: Vittorio
A Robert Fox production, released by Miramax Films. Director John Irvin. Producer Fox. Screenplay Trevor Bentham, based on the short story by H.E. Bates. Cinematographer Pasqualino DeSantis. Editor Peter Tanner. Costumes Lia Morandini. Music Nicola Piovani. Production design Giovanni Giovagnoni. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
* In limited release throughout Southern California.