A MOVIE version of a classic--Swann in Love, Under the Volcano, The Europeans--that is both entertaining and intelligent about as likely a find as Superman in Mem Hall. James Ivory's Bostonians will do just that and it is well worth seeing.
In a lot of ways. The Bostonians continues where The Europeans--a recent Henry James adaptation by the same producer, director, and writer--left off. The latter was a competent, meticulous, pleasant enough piece about a broad of scandalous foreigners who descend on the placid New England scene. The Bostonians is visually reminiscent of the earlier film, but looks even more gorgeous. Shot around Beacon Hill, Harvard, and Martha's Vineyard, it is so consistently picturesque you almost expect to see Whistler's name in the credits. The main problem with Ivory's Europeans were the Europeans themselves, who were about as scandalous as an invasion of nannies. The Bostonians, thankfully, sheds the genteel anemia of its precursor. Prawer Jhabvala's screenplay, and the memorable cast--Vanessa Redgrave, Christopher Reeve, Linda Hunt and Madeleine Potter--are responsible for the success.
The opening scene shows a bizarre gathering, what looks like a mixture of a seance and a suffragette fund-raiser at a musty Boston club. Featured performers are a "Dr." Tarrant, full-time charlatan, faith-healer, and medium. The message is provided by his charming, red-haired daughter Verena (Madeleine Potter) who, assisted by her father's attendant spirits, delivers a heart-wrenching address on behalf of oppressed women. The camera alternates between a prim-looking, middle-aged woman listening to Verena's rhetoric in mystic rapture, tears in her eyes: and a handsome young man, listening with appreciation that looks less like a convert's.
This sets up the ongoing conflict of the story: the fight-unto-death for the affections, body and soul of Verena between the two listeners. Olive Chancellor (Vanessa Redgrave) and Basil Ransom (Christopher Reeve).
AN ECCENTRIC woman of Brahmin origins, Olive has elevated suffragism to the level of a personal cult. Olive and Basil become enthralled by Verena, an earnest, sweet-looking, if not quite articulate enough character to make plausible her subsequent fame as an orator.
For a generous fee, the Tarrants--a pair of 19th-century Cantabrigians with looks and behavior that seem more rodent-like than human-hand Verena's education, upbringing, and welfare over to Olive. She spirits the girl away to Beacon Hill, and away from all the distractions that could affect an impressionable young woman of that age. Olive's fear for Verena's "impurity" is a fear of everything outside the narrow Suffragist circle of dedicated ladies and genteel performs.
Olive wants nothing less for Verena than an airtight existence as her personal protege and possession. For a time, things work out: Verena is genuinely fond of her mentor, discloses her every thought and act, and shows promise as the darling of the East Coast parlour circuit as she delivers feminist addresses to fashionable audiences.
Basil Ransom remains equally taken with Verena. Beyond her fiery, teary feminist rhetoric, Ransom finds in her all he wants in a wife. While the girl is intrigued by the handsome stranger, and enjoys flirting as much as prosletyzing. Basil's intrusions into the idyll fill Olive--his distant cousin, it turns out--with morbid jealousy. The crossfire of affection, jealousy, and sheer emotional blackmail swirling around Verena intensifies, as Basil follows the women to the Vineyard, insistent that she allow him to replace Olive, the cause, and just about everything else in her life.
Vanessa Redgrave rises to the challenges of her role, decidedly a difficult one. She portrays Olive-essentially an unattractive, narrows-minded, selfish character--without condescension. There is genuine pathos about Olive's obsessiveness, as it is evident that Verena is her sole emotional focus: suffragism her only raison d'etre. But even her idealism is problematic--talking about women's suffrage, she sounds more like a mystic than a social reformer.
Linda Hunt, as Dr. Prance, is the most enigmatic, as well as the most sympathetic character in the movie. Amusingly sarcastic at times, she is the observer, in a sense, the raisoneur who reduces birth sides to size. While no feminist, she has a full-time career as a doctor. "Both sexes could so with improving, as neither is up to scratch," she tells Ransom. Despite her patronizing airs she is the best of the lot, in terms of genuine concern and integrity.
Madeleine Potter as Verena manages to create a character that is infinitely sweet without being insipid: an innocent but not an imbecile or a wimp. The ambiguity of Verena's character comes across-on one hand, she is being hailed as the champion of women's rights: on the other, she has little identity of her own. Ransom's old and Olive's new are alternately borrowed and discarded in an effort to keep all parties of the love triangle reasonably happy. At the same time, Verena is convincing and interesting enough--"an original," as an admiring New York matron points out--to keep all the vacillation quite riveting.
Reeve, who is fast on his way to becoming the all-American hero, recalls just about all the American screen-gods of the past--from ex-Superman to heir of the Rhett Butler tradition of Southern seduction. He also knows how to act.
The Bostonians may or may not be destined for Freshman Week glory aside Paper Chase, Love Story, and other on-location classics. But it is worth seeing, and Yard cognoscenti will get a knowing chuckle from seeing Johnston Gate's ever-obnoxious gingerbread guard-booth look out of place in yet another century.