Since Eve, the sins of woman have been considered far more insidious than those of man. Why? Perhaps because by placing female error on a kind of cocked pedestal, men can get away with more. Let's face it: Helen of Troy hardly did a thing and launched a thousand angry ships. Odysseus didn't come home for 20 years, and when he did he was a hero.
What "Feast of July" is about is the wake of sin, a single sin, committed by a woman, in this case Isabella Ford (Embeth Davidtz). Seduced, abandoned and pregnant in the late 19th Century, she lumbers across the harsh winter landscape of the English Midlands, gives birth in a barn to a stillborn child and wanders stunned into a red-bricked industrial town, where she is taken home by the kindly Ben Wainwright (Tom Bell).
There, she gets a skeptical eye from his wife (Gemma Jones) and an appreciative sizing-up by his three grown sons, who commence a barnyard-style mating dance over the comely young woman with the secret. Mom is not amused. And an air of dread hangs over the entire household.
Davidtz, who made such an impression in "Schindler's List," plays Bella, as she's called, with defiant restraint. Deeply wounded, scarred by the loss of love and child, she is determined to locate Arch Wilson (Greg Wise), the man who betrayed her. She finds him--and finds he's got a wife and child--and forsakes him. She flirts with brothers Matty (Kenneth Anderson) and Jedd (James Purefoy) and becomes engaged to the youngest, simplest Wainwright, Con (Ben Chaplin). But Bella's is a world without redemption: Her single moral lapse will haunt her, to a concluding tragedy so absolute it's farcical.
The film, by Christopher Menaul (who directed television's "Prime Suspect"), moves like Bella, with muted passion and determination. This is a Merchant Ivory production, but it eschews the lushness associated with most of its films for an aesthetic allegiance to the 19th Century. The cinematography by Peter Sova makes life seem positively claustrophobic, and the tone is so concentrated and constrained that when "Feast of July" does combust into violence--there is one scene of visceral brutality--you're stunned.
* MPAA rating: R, for brief violence and sexuality. Times guidelines: The violence is brief, but potent.
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'Feast of July'
Embeth Davidtz: Bella Ford
Tom Bell: Ben Wainwright
Gemma Jones: Mrs. Wainwright
James Purefoy: Jedd Wainwright
Greg Wise: Arch Wilson
Ben Chaplin: Con Wainwright
A Merchant Ivory production, released by Touchstone. Director Christopher Menaul. Producers Henry Herbert, Christopher Neame. Screenplay by Neame. Cinematographer Peter Sova. Editor Chris Wimble. Costumes Phoebe De Gaye. Music Zbigniew Preisner. Production design Christopher Robilliard. Art directors Roy Stannard, Caroline Smith, Sonja Klaus. Set Designer Jill Quertier. Running time 1 hour 58 minutes.
* In limited release at the AMC Century 14, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 553-8900.