by Colin Firth
During August of last year I worked on a film called A Month in the Country (adapted from a novel of the same name by J. L. Carr and directed by Pat O’Connor).
It may be an excellent film; I have not yet seen it. It will be going to Cannes this month, although in what capacity I do not know. As an actor I have to accept that the fate of the film is no longer my business.
It started life as a beautifully complete novel: the story of two outsiders in a Yorkshire village community in 1919. Both are War veterans. The character I play lives in the belfry of the local church, where his job is to restore a long-covered medieval wall-painting; the other (Kenneth Branagh) is an archaeologist living in a tent in a neighbouring field.
It is a pleasant, wistful, distant recollection of a summer idyll — of being young, and very English. But set against this, lying at the heart of the piece, is one of the ugliest and cruellest atrocities in history. The War casts a shadow over the entire story; its effect on both veterans and civilians and the struggle to recover are the dominant issues, although they are often dealt with only by implication.
My own task lay in portraying Tom Birkin, who arrives, having suffered severe shell-shock and still very obviously broken, and attempts to use this environment to find peace of mind. The trauma of a man who has been through the battles of Ypres is quite inconceivable to anyone who was not himself “over there,” let alone to an Englishman of my generation (26). So I was dealing with something quite outside my ken. But without an understanding of his experience it would have been impossible to understand his recovery, so I delved into any clues available to me — poems, letters, memoirs and photographs. I found that I became so engrossed in groundwork that it was quite a sobering shock to be called upon actually to do something. So rarely had I been presented with a script of such promise, I had become somewhat precious about it.
To arrive on the set and see real things — props, cameras, a church, a tent and so forth — brought home the fact that a practical job lay ahead, with practical limitations and all the usual absurdities: cardboard gravestones, a mute violin, a genuine medieval wall-painting covered over to make way for the pretend one, all being treated with great professional sobriety.
The shooting started with remarkable abruptness on the first day. And so did a cataract of obstacles. The sort of frustrations we endured are commonplace to the point of cliché, but ours were remarkable for the relentlessness and uncanny precision. One of the first scenes we shot consisted of me standing outside the church bawling, “God! What God? There is no God!” At that moment the heavens opened and unleashed the rainiest August of the decade on to the entire shoot. The hot, hazy summer, quite indispensable to the story, had to be fought for between gaps in the clouds.
There was also a rash of peculiar technical faults for which there no apparent explanation. Often a take would cast an extraordinary spell on the set, and to the word “cut” everyone would hold their breath, knowing that it wouldn’t be like that again; Pat, who often seemed still to be concentrating on the performance some time after it was over, would say, “All right, that’s it, print that one,” with the air of a man defusing a bomb. A few seconds later the bomb would invariably go off with the familiar sound of some pained and cringing soul crying, “Sorry. . . can we go again on that?” So we would go again, with the spell broken.
On top of it all, we were working with a deliberately sparse script; instead of overloading itself with passages from the book, it opted for an economical approach and this placed colossal responsibility on the actors and the director. It felt like sailing a ship without ballast: a slight misjudgment could send the whole thing off course. But in the midst of this apparent chaos, Pat displayed the extraordinary ability to make room for imaginations to flourish. His thinking is balanced and at the same time driven by the energy of a fanatic. It is a unique quality which I can only describe as passionately reasonable. By use of the most restrained suggestions, perfectly apposite to the capabilities of each particular actor, he was at times able to coax brilliance out of him or her.
If this sounds uncomfortably like a eulogy on my director, this is not the intention. It is just that his qualities are among my main reasons for having done this film and for my having anything to say about it. The novel, as I have indicated, functions on various levels, and the film could easily have taken a summer idyll approach.
Had it not been for Pat’s alertness to the danger of it becoming soft, I would have had considerable doubts about taking the job on. It was tempting at times to return for guidance to the book. Although it would have been impossible to understand the script fully without having read Carr’s novel (I read it six times in all), I felt it necessary much of the time to keep it out of my mind once filming started.
I usually find, when interpreting someone else’s material, that once the original has been thoroughly absorbed there eventually comes a point where it has to be usurped by the interpreter’s own imagination. Only then can the imagination function freely enough to do justice to the original. It is vital to a character’s credibility that the actor makes it very personally his own.
Moments of panic or doubt would at times drive me to the book for inspiration, but it could confuse matters when it came to putting things into action and an incisive approach was required.
My biggest comeuppance came when one day I found myself face to face with J. L. Carr. All my defiant notions of independence and taking control of the character withered. I suddenly felt like a guilty imposter.
It was not simply because he had dreamt up this character I was struggling to portray that I found myself taking him so seriously; it was something in the nature of the man. He seems quietly alert and watchful. One is quick to sense that he functions very much on his own terms and is, like his work, without airs.
Also reflected in his book are his latent dry humour and his self-confidence. “Yes, it’s a very good book; I think it’s a book which will last,” he says with such unassuming frankness that one accepts it as modest evaluation (even though he claims with the same certainty to have written a better piece than Turgenev’s play of the same name — “Why should any writer have a monopoly on a good title?”’).
This was the first time his work had been filmed, and he seemed to be a little bewildered at what had happened to all his words: “I do think I’m good at dialogue — why don’t they just use what I wrote?”
He watched some of the filming and then disappeared as suddenly as he had arrived. But I did manage, in the meantime, to ply him with a few questions. He was more forthcoming than I had expected, and gave me some haunting descriptions of places on which settings had been based, as well as a charming reference to the model for the young woman of the novel, Mrs. Keach. She is such an attractive and lovingly drawn character that one cannot fail to be moved on behalf of the woman he had in mind.
He was decidedly evasive on the question of my character. Not that I expect an author to have a specific model for his characters, but I found him so like Birkin that I was intrigued to see how much he would admit to. The answer was nothing. Apparently Birkin is in no way autobiographical. No model then? “Well, now I’ve met you. . .,” he said with a faint smirk.
So now I wait in limbo for all these things, all the work, all the thought and all the worry to be reduced to 100 minutes of screen time.
One of the most irritating things about a film is the fact that it stays around so long after your own work is finished and largely forgotten. Five or six weeks are spent exclusively devoted to a project, engrossed in its problems, involved with its people, and then it’s over — old work, obsolete. And while you move on to fresh pastures, new problems and new people, somewhere this old work is still growing in other hands, ready to return and confront you in a completely unfamiliar guise at the time when you feel least answerable for it.
This film, however, is one to which I feel unusually loyal. As a result of the work last August I now have, albeit ephemerally, a very intelligent, very disturbing, and very beautiful film in my head. I consider that I have no right at all to hedge my bets: I am perfectly confident that the real film will bear me out (I think).
Copyright © 1987 Colin Firth; Harpers & Queen