THE SATISFACTION of reading a Henry James novel is seeing through eyes that penetrate the surface of Victorian manner and dress, and resolve scenes of human life into clearer images of human nature. The appeal is surely intellectual rather than emotional--the beauty of a James' novel is not so much in the characters' intrigues, but in the author's view of them,
It is natural, then, in a film based on Henry James' novel The Europeans to look for someone with penetrating eyes--the filmmaker or even a character--who will transform the moving picture into insightful frames. In the film the most likely character to make such critical judgments is an old Bostonian, Mr. Wentworth (Wesley Addy), a father who sets the somber, reflective tone of his family's life. But he reserves and understates his opinions, narrating the actions of his European cousins more with his expressive eyes than with his voice.
James' characters, without James' words, seem thin even to a ready observer of human nature.
The only potential narrator watches quietly as his visiting niece Eugenia (Lee Remick), an aging baroness, looks for a new husband whom she doubts will be "clever or friendly...or elegant or interesting." Wentworth makes but a rare comment as his rosy, foreign nephew pursues his daughter Gertrude (Lisa Eichorn) to fit into his agreeable, if not a frivolous and parasitic existence in America. With so much room, not to mention right, to criticize, Mr. Wentworth steps neatly to the side.
Yet politeness is not the only reason the film The Europeans lacks an analytic persona. The director, James Ivory, as well as both Wentworth and James himself are, as Wentworth states in the novel, aware that "Forming an opinion--say on a person's conduct--was a good deal like fumbling in a lock with a key chosen at hazard." As analyzing human nature can be slightly slow, clumsy and difficult on paper, so much harder is it to render it on film ready made for passive viewing in a theater. Without an insightful narrator or character who is willing and able to pronounce judgements on the characters, only the formal, though charming, Victorian plot and characters remain. Only seemingly simple appearances show through; each character looks the way he really is. Face value becomes of great value.
The plot centers on the Wentworths, a New England family--the reserved father, the daughter with "good sense," Charlotte (Nancy New), and the daughter without "good sense," Gertrude, who stays home from church "Because the sky is so blue!"--and their European relatives who visit them. Gertrude is being tamed for a marriage to Mr. Brand (Norman Snow), a serious and pious, if not a dull man. But when the Wentworth's cousins from Europe, Eugenia (Lee Remick) and Felix (Tim Woodward) come to America in hopes of finding their cousins rich, entertaining, and ready to take them in, Felix pries a willing Gertrude from the somber arms of her family and Mr. Brand. Meanwhile the royally unhappy Eugenia cannot arouse nor be aroused by the passions of Mr. Robert Acton (Robin Ellis), a relation of the Wentworths.
The plot contains little more than the intrigue of four flirtships in one family. We see four different affairs budding in four different parts of the whitewashed house during a family party. For the most part though, the affairs are routine--the restless fall to the restless, the pious to the pious, the young to the young, and the bored and middle-aged to none.
Without an analytical personal of Henry James to crystalize these routine affairs into clear gems of human nature, we have to trust that the characters are the way they appear to be or are the way they say they are. When Felix wears bright flowered suspenders with checkered pants he looks like a fool. When Gertrude says that her family makes use of all 1000 ways to be dreary; when Felix says that in marrying him Gertrude would be hiding her light under a bushel, he being the bushel; and when Eugenia says she is a deserted baroness left with very little, there is nothing more or less to believe.
The candidness and seeming simplicity of the characters suggest that what Wentworth called Felix's "confident, gaily trenchant way of judging human actions" is indeed sufficient and satisfying--"criticism made easy."
Yet taking all the characters at face value, their face values lack complexity and beauty of character. Henry James is missing. Still, there are some things the film captures in their ripe fulness. Where the frontality of the characters makes us want a wise mediator, the simple scenes of a New England autumn in rain and in shine, the bubbliness of rambunctious young love, the sound of crickets at night and of a cello playing "Tis the Gift to be Simple" seduce us into forgetting for a moment the key-fumbling criticisms and to trust without sorrow that everything is just the way it looks.