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Review: The Europeans

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

With the likes of Grease and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre packin’ ’em in, people keep saying the cinema is going to hell and only the most crass hold sway. However, if the Seventies gave the world porno and John Travolta, the decade also saw a revival, on a fairly grand scale, of interest in Henry James. Of all authors! What could so fastidious an artist have to say to our vulgarian’s age? Well, quite a lot, it would seem, for there have been more ventures into Jamesiana in the Seventies than in the entire previous history of film – several TV movies (two by Claude Chabrol), announced projects (Chabrol’s proposed film of The Wings of the Dove was called off, not for want of backing, but because he changed his mind about it), two wildly unJamesian but nevertheless James-inspired movies (The Nightcomers and Celine et Julie vont en bateau), and three major adaptations: Daisy Miller, La Chambre verte (from The Altar of the Dead), and now The Europeans. This last seems to me the best James movie to date, in terms of catching the author’s essence, and it’s an exquisite entertainment, immensely worth seeing.

It’s a comedy about love, freedom, and manners in the Boston suburbia of a hundred years ago. It reverses James’s perennial theme of Old Europe vs. Young America. Here, young America is a starchy, repressed, puritan society and old Europe, represented by a couple of interlopers who are actually American but have lived mainly abroad (like James), is the liberating, anarchic force. The inhabitants of the young democratic land are staid and so set in their ways, they might be suffering from premature rigor mortis; whilst the strangers, affiliated with an ancient aristocracy, bring with them an exuberant disdain for formal societal mannerisms which up-ends everyone, to the eventual joy of the younger generation and the sadness of their elders. There is more to it than that, though. Whereas the Baroness Eugenia (Lee Remick) and her doubly-symbolically-named brother Felix Young (Tim Woodward) bring happiness to others, only one of them, the infinitely adaptable and irrepressible Felix, can find personal fulfillment as well. The Baroness has an intricately unspoken relationship with the wealthy Robert Acton (Robin Ellis) but, though he clearly is keen to marry her, there is a clash of temperament at the most fundamental (and hardest-to-define) level. Robert and Eugenia have will in common, more than personality. Felix and the cousin he falls in love with seem to be complete opposites, each serving to draw out repressed virtues in the other, and the same is true of the relationship between the clergyman officially designated as the cousin’s suitor and the girl he actually loves, her more glamourous sister. But Robert and Eugenia reflect each other on a quite straightforward level and each is quite aware of the other’s iron resolve, spunky independence of spirit, and individualist firmness. Thus, though Robert and Eugenia initially seem to be made for each other – something one cannot say for Felix and his Gertrude, or for Parson Brand and his Charlotte – they are in fact not suited in the long term and each, regretfully but unshakeably, comes to know this. Is it that Robert wishes to retain his independence and avoid wifely domination? Or is it that he’s a straightforward male chauvinist, as the Baroness seeks to imply? Is she too flighty? Or is she too strong for him? True to James, director Ivory keeps it ambiguous – for the excellent reasons that, the human heart being what it is, no one really can ever know for sure, and knowing for sure is, in any case, not what’s important. Ivory leaves out the ultra-ironic conclusion of the novel (“Robert Acton, after his mother’s death, married a particularly nice young girl”), but the hint of melancholy (if it is melancholy) in his closing images is exactly right. In every way James has been served by unobtrusive but exemplary filmic means: the movie zips by in a mere 83 minutes, is utterly beautiful to look at, and is funny enough to make you laugh aloud. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has stealthily added a ball scene to the central section of the story, and she and Ivory ingeniously yoke together all the film’s themes (also a good stretch of exposition which gets spread out in the novel) into this middle sequence, with the comings and goings of plot and character nicely pictorialised in the swirling figures of the dancers. New England in the fall (the time symbolism of the novel had to be abandoned) is a gift to any good cinematographer, and we are presented with an American Eden with neither snake, nor, by the end, any fruit on its trees of knowledge: all the characters in the story learn, and what they learn changes them irrevocably. (Except maybe for the idiotic and oafish Clifford, kid brother of the two sisters – however, his future education, we surmise, will be extensive, with Europe as his base and the Baroness as his teacher.) Yet the changes leave no lasting scars and the winter sun is a source of future strength. Lastly, The Europeans is wonderfully well acted: Tim Woodward has all the feckless, overgrown-schoolboy charm of Errol Flynn, but also greater gravity, whilst Lee Remick, in her first really good film role since Loot in 1970, is little short of fabulous, and seems the filmland Jamesian heroine par excellence. If only someone had filmed The Portrait of a Lady, say about 15 years ago, she would have been the perfect Isabel Archer…

© 1979 Pierre Greenfield

Direction: James Ivory. Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, after the novel by Henry James. Cinematography: Larry Pizer. Art direction: Jeremiah Runcini. Music: Richard Robbins. Production: Ismail Merchant.
The players: Lee Remick, Robin Ellis, Tim Woodward, Lisa Eichhorn, Kristin Griffith, Wesley Addy, Norman Snow, Nancy New.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.