If Beale Street Could Talk
Jenkins’ decision to let the original storyteller live and breathe throughout If Beale Street Can Talk is a wise one.
In the opening scenes of "Feast of July," a young woman makes her way across one of those landscapes that seem to exist for the purpose of illustrating Victorian novels. The sky is dark and lowering, the wind bites sharply across the heath, and she staggers into shelter just in time to give birth to a stillborn child, and bury it. Then she somehow makes her way into a grim little village, where a local man takes pity on her and invites her home.
The man is Ben Wainwright (Tom Bell), and his family consists of his wife (Gemma Jones) and his three sons: Jedd (James Purefoy), an Army man; Matty (Kenneth Anderson), a shoemaker, and Con (Ben Chaplin), the youngest, who seems a little slow and socially maladroit. Mrs. Wainwright cares for the homeless woman, named Bella (Embeth Davidtz), and learns or guesses much of her story.
It is clear to us that the introduction of this attractive young woman into the household is going to cause problems, but it is not clear to Ben, who tells her she can stay if she will help with the family's work. Soon all three sons are smitten with her, but she takes pity on young Con, who seems helpless and identifies more with his pet pigeons than with other people.
Meanwhile, Bella's past is revealed. She was seduced and abandoned by a slick-talking cad named Arch Wilson (Greg Wise), who told her he lived in this village. That was a lie, along with almost everything else he told her, and when one day she sees him in a street and follows him, she discovers that he has also deceived another young woman. Meanwhile, Con proposes marriage, and to the astonishment of the familyBella accepts.
That leads to a final showdown between Con and Arch Wilson, and the kind of bleak Victorian conclusion we would expect from Wilkie Collins, or George Gissing. It is a little surprising to find it comes from a novel by H. E. Bates (1906-1974), a modern figure.
My problem with the film was that none of the characters is really interesting. Even Bella, well played by Davidtz (from "Schindler's List"), seems like a pawn in a melodrama rather than a woman with ideas of her own. Her choice of Con for a husband is inexplicable: He seems slow and uninteresting. Ben, the father, is curiously detached from his family, and not perceptive. Mrs.
Wainwright, the mother, is perceptive, but nothing is made of that.
And the conclusion of the film is bleak without being meaningful.
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