A lush idyll along Italy’s Lake Como provides the setting for “A Month by the Lake.” Seenery aside, it’s a wafer-thin tale unable to support the summer sojourn of a fragile love story set on the eve of World War II. Despite the recent appeal of Brit period productions, this outing has modest theatrical prospects on its way to cable and video shelves.
Spinster Miss Bentley (Vanessa Redgrave) is enjoying a bittersweet May 1937 at an Italian resort oft frequented by her family. It’s her first time there since the death of her father and the breakup of a relationship with a married lover. The rumblings of impending war are on the horizon and the once British-dominated haven has been overrun with European mainlanders and isolationist Americans.
Still, there’s the eligible Maj. Winslow (James Fox), a factory owner in for some sun and tennis. And although he shows initial interest, he’s slightly put off by Bentley’s self-assurance and formidable style on the court. He’s also a bit distracted by Miss Beaumont (Uma Thurman), a young American woman employed as a nanny for the Bonizzoni family.
Winslow’s infatuation with the flirty Beaumont falls somewhere between the preposterous and the pathetic. It’s contrasted with a brief attraction between Bentley and a comely Italian youth (Alessandro Gassman) that’s equally difficult to take seriously.
Faced with attenuated material, the performers — particularly Fox and Thurman — tend to play their roles over the top. Fox’s major is the model of a Terry Thomas buffoon, and Thurman’s coquette is shrill and obvious. Redgrave, dripping with sincerity, just barely escapes with her dignity.
It’s perhaps because of its lack of substance that “A Month by the Lake” drifts off, like the visitors, for day trips. The most resonant of them involves a Fascista parade and the threat of an ugly scene. But the film provides merely samplings of looming, larger issues. They are cast off as annoyances, employed only to stretch out what’s essentially a vignette better suited to a television hour format.
The best one can say is that this makes for marvelous travelogue material. The locales are bathed in gorgeous sunlight by Pasqualino De Santis, with handsome period reconstruction in both settings and clothing. The drama’s outcome will be obvious to any but a handful of viewers willing to suspend reason.