A Month in The Country

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THE BOTTOM LINE: The fable of four Englishwomen on a Portofino holiday gives moviegoers a vacation in rapture.

What do women want? To get away from men. To escape into a community of sisterhood. And then, nourished by that sorority, to find better men -- even if they are the ones left behind, but now with hearts refreshed and reformed.

Can dreams of independence and reconciliation both come true? Such is the seductive, fairy-tale feminism of the novelist Elizabeth von Arnim. She wrote Enchanted April nearly 70 years ago, around the time Virginia Woolf was lobbying for a room of her own. Von Arnim thought bigger: Why not a villa? Bring four restless Englishwomen to a castle near Portofino to shake off London's damp climate and dim proprieties.

Mrs. Fisher (Joan Plowright), a crusty matron, was once an intimate of Ruskin and Rossetti, as she will remind you without prompting. Lady Caroline (Polly Walker) might be a pre-Raphaelite princess, but adrift in the jazz age and bored by the clammy attentions men pay her. The others, Lottie (Josie Lawrence) and Rose (Miranda Richardson), are trussed in marriages that seem more like mergers. Lottie's husband, an attorney, wants her to be a housemaid and party ornament. Rose's husband, a writer, wants her to stay at home, out of his lightly lecherous way, and tend the emptiness she feels after a miscarriage.

All four women, quietly in mourning for the past, are emblems of a Britain whose imperial grandeur was violated by the Great War, its ashes sowing their memories. Mrs. Fisher says it, but they all want it: "to sit in the shade and remember better times and better men."

Instead they find Paradise.

The four sorceresses are splendid: Plowright in high Lady Bracknell form, accommodating herself to happiness; Walker, sensationally poised and pretty, radiating a soigne sexiness; Richardson (Dance with a Stranger) as a sad Madonna doomed to fidelity; and Lawrence, a TV comedy star, as a liberated slave gaily savoring her freedom.

It is a privilege to be in the company of these four women. Like the actresses in Howards End, the quartet in Enchanted April summon bygone graces and glamour. In a raucous movie summer, this is a film for those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine, and a recollection of a time when women and movies could be purveyors of enchantment.