A woman abandoned by her lover finds a home with a kindly family. But while the three adult sons of the family compete with her affections, her ex threatens to destroy whatever happiness she finds.
Losing a child after a harrowing birth, Bella Ford (Davidtz) is given refuge by kindly Ben Wainwright (Bell) and his wife (Gemma Jones). From here, the plot develops along two lines with Bella searching for errant lover Arch Wilson (Wise) who left her penniless and pregnant, while contending with the advances of the Wainwrights' sons; likeable Matty (Kenneth Anderson), smoothie Jedd (James Purefoy) and intense Con (Ben Chaplin). Secret trysts and fraternal tensions ensue, until the reappearance of Wilson shatters the idyll, propelling events on a downward spiral into the realm marked tragedy.
There's much to admire here. Eschewing chocolate box pictorialism, the low-key evocative look enhances the impending sense of doom, while moments of blood-soaked brutality go some way to cutting through the mush. And the dramatic highpoints are well handled by first-time movie director Menaul (Prime Suspect).
But the screenplay, based on an H.E. Bates novel, never really comes to life, and the performances are decidedly one note, with Davidtz failing to infuse Bella with the subtleties and vulnerability she displayed in Schindler's List, and Wise unable to flesh out his bit-part bounder. Still, for those hungry for a confection of costume drama cliches, Feast Of July serves up enough goodies to sate the appetite. Just.
Despite forsaking plummy toffs for gritty northerners, this Merchant Ivory production still displays the hallmarks of their period pieces. Romantic rejections, familial squabbles, and silly sideburns are all to the fore in this solid, if never totally absorbing, would-be weepy.