Set in the autumn of 1913, just before the outbreak of World War I, this stunning film captures the last days of a way of life--the English country life of large estates, shooting parties, and aristocratic leisure--all of which will be swept away with the war and the subsequent industrialization of the country. Director Alan Bridges emphasizes this theme symbolically in the opening scenes of this 1985 film, as a litter is borne across a field against a backdrop of brilliant autumn foliage. A lively cast of characters has been invited to Sir Randolph Nettleby's 1000-acre park for a weekend shoot, and as the characters converse, interact, and dally romantically, the reader learns the details of their "civilized" lives, their attitudes and prejudices, and their understanding of their code of behavior. James Mason stars in his final film role as Sir Randolph, a man who loves his aristocratic obligations as host, but who also enjoys associating with some of the locals who live around his estate. Tom Harker, wonderfully played by Gordon Jackson, is a beater and also a poacher, with whom Sir Randolph has a tacit understanding and friendly relationship. Sir John Gielgud playing an activist who opposes blood-sports has only a small role, but his confrontation with Sir Randolph (Mason), following his attempt to interrupt the shoot, becomes one of the most memorable scenes in filmdom--two greats at the peak of their powers. Personal rivalries develop among several of the guests, who adhere to the "correct" etiquette of their class even as they deal with injuries to their pride--a nicety of behavior that will soon vanish with war. When the shoot begins and the orgy of bloodshed occurs, the symbolic parallels between the world as it has been, as it will be during the war, and as it will change are unmistakable. Edwardian interiors, manicured grounds, and costuming set the period, and the clever use of light and darkness emphasizes the themes. Melancholy music echoes throughout, and camera shots emphasize the waning days of this way of life. Julian Bond's screenplay from the book by Isabel Colegate, accurately captures her straightforward tone and style, and the closing scene, in which another litter is carried across the field, is a clear message that an age and way of life are at an end. Note: Many viewers on the US site have lamented the poor quality of the transfer to the DVD edition. This review is for the VHS edition. Mary Whipple
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