Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

The Europeans meet the Bostonians ...

... but where are THE AMBASSADORS ?
It's the mid-nineteenth century.  Brother and sister Felix Young and Eugenia Munster were born and raised in Europe and have a somewhat bohemian lifestyle reflective of their travels throughout Europe. Felix, who has little money, is interested in painting and the arts. Eugenia is a baroness by marriage. They decide to travel to New England to meet their uncle and their three cousins, the Wentworths, who live just outside of Boston, and are highly puritanical, the uncle in particular. The Wentworths are somewhat suspicious as to the reason for their relatives' visit, but nonetheless the uncle puts them up in a neighboring house on their property. While Felix enjoys the company of his cousins - especially Gertrude - Eugenia is a bit more standoffish - is she looking for a new marriage to a man of means?

This all looks marvellous from the Merchant-Ivory team: director James Ivory, producer Ishmail Merchant and their regular scriptwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. The Merchant-Ivory team did some interesting films, on tiny budgets, luring top notch casts with Ishmail's legendary cooking skills, starting with SHAKESPEARE WALLAH in 1965, THE GURU, BOMBAY TALKIE, HEAT AND DUST, the 1981 QUARTET (see Maggie Smith/Alan Bates labels) etc. THE EUROPEANS and THE BOSTONIANS are their two Henry James films before they, more successfully, moved on to E.M.Foster with the highly-successful (and still highly entertaining now) A ROOM WITH A VIEW in 1985 and gay classic MAURICE in 1987. HOWARD'S END and THE REMAINS OF THE DAY were other hits for them. I have been meaning to see one of their last productions, THE WHITE COUNTESS in 2005 - maybe I will save it for "some snowy night in front of the fire", I will have to go back to MAURICE too and see how that stands up now. They also returned to Henry James with THE GOLDEN BOWL in 2000.

Back to THE EUROPEANS in 1979. The look of the film is astonishing, with authentic looking costumes and hair-styles of the period. Being filmed in the New England fall helps too. Often costume movies feature clothes and hair-styles pleasing to today's sensibilities, but not here, some of those hair styles are positively ugly but seem suitably in period. The cast is the thing here - Projector favourite Lee Remick brings a lot of shade to the discontented Baroness, Tim Woodward is her brother, eager to stay with his relatives, particularly Lisa Eichorn (so good also that year in Schlesinger's YANKS) as Gertrude, while Wesley Addey is ideal as the stern head of the family. The story is interestingly worked out as the family and the sophisticated Europeans intermingle ....
The Baroness finds what she is looking for (money) but feels not enough passion from the man - Robin Ellis who admires her, but as she says  "I am admired in Europe" - perhaps she has tired of the staid community - she leaves but most everyone else finds exactly what they were looking for.

THE BOSTONIANS from 1984, on the other hand, is rather a hard slog, as we try to get interested in this obscure tale of a 19th-century Boston woman dedicated to the suffrage movement, who meets a faith healer's daughter Verena, a gifted orator, and tries to incorporate her into her movement, while  Basil Ransome, a Mississippi lawyer, also has eyes for the young woman.

Vanessa Redgrave (in an Oscar nominated performance) is luminous as ever as the wealthy Olive Chancellor, while Christopher Reeves catches the chauvinist who wants to marry the girl; does he see her as a trophy to wrest away from his distant cousin Olive? He makes it quite clear he wants to keep Verena at home, for his pleasure. They both try to gain control over the destiny of the spirited young woman. Battle is joined and for Olive the struggle with prove an odyssey that forces her to acknowledge her true nature - but does it? 
Is Olive a repressed lesbian or just a spinster who despises Basil and all he stands for? Verena (Madeleine Potter) is depicted as such a ninny and not that charismatic that it is hard to see what they see in her. The women get close but the lure of a handsme man proves too much for Verena, as Olive discovers she too can deliver a powerful speech. Jessica Tandy Nancy Marchand, Linda Hunt, Wallace Shawn and Wesley Addey again provide sterling support, I just wish I had enjoyed it more. Again it looks agreeably pleasing with interesting costumes and interiors. 

And THE AMBASSADORS? Not a Merchant-Ivory, but a BBC 'Play of the Month' from 1977, as I have written about here before - Lee Remick labels. This fascinating sounding Henry James adaptation with Paul Scofield, Remick, Delphine Seyrig and Gayle Hunnicutt was shown once, and does not seem available at all now, though other BBC costume dramas are available in BBC boxsets, like those Oscar Wilde dramas and the like. 
Henry James, like E.M. Forster, seems ideal for the cinema. We think fondly of the 1949 THE HEIRESS and its 1997 WASHNGTON SQUARE remake (with Albert Finney and Maggie Smith); and there have been several productions of THE ASPERN PAPERS. The BBC also did a GOLDEN BOWL, and of course THE TURN OF THE SCREW has been a great film (THE INNOCENTS - see Deborah Kerr label) and opera by Benjamin Brittan with the young David Hemmings as Miles. 

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