For cinematic adapters, the novels of Henry James are among the toughest nuts to crack. The longtime moviemaking team of Merchant-Ivory (consisting of director James Ivory, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and producer Ismail Merchant) apparently wants to keep trying.
They made a version of The Europeans, with Lee Remick and Lisa Eichhorn, a few years ago. That film disppeared quickly, but they’re at it again, this time with a cast guaranteed to provide a higher profile.
The Bostonians stars Christopher Reeve and Vanessa Redgrave in James’ tale of the struggles of suffragettes in New England in the 1870s. Redgrave is an intense suffrage leader; Reeve is her distant cousin, a lawyer from Mississippi whose views on men and women are only a few hundred years behind the times.
Between them comes Verena (Madeleine Potter), a girl with a mesmerizing stage presence, who makes speeches on the women’s movement. Redgrave takes her in and grooms her to be the figurehead of the suffrage movement. Reeve simply falls in love with her, and pursues her in a gentlemanly fashion during the next couple of years. He offers her a choice: the cause or marriage. Not both.
Without the visual equivalent of James’ elegant, biting prose, that question can get pretty thin when stretched over two hours – and it does. The Bostonians is a stately, stuffy, respectful adaptation; Ivory and company have basically transcribed a number of scenes from the book and filmed them. They certainly haven’t found a fresh, purely cinematic approach. Perhaps its most glaring fault is the absence of Jamesian wit.
If the film as a whole strikes me as a misfire, I still found much of it engrossing. The locations and the actors are watchable enough. Reeve, for the first time outside Superman, is actually pretty good – the Southern accent is unfaltering, and he physically embodies the kind of traditional backward-looking gentleman of the times. Redgrave has less to do, in part because the film has shifted the emphasis toward Reeve’s character.
Wallace Shawn hustles through as a conniving reporter who would like to harness Verena’s gift as a moneymaking commodity; Nancy Marchand does a clever turn as the matriarch of a family whose son is smitten with Verena; and Linda Hunt (the tiny actress who won an Academy Award last year for The Year of Living Dangerously) is a superb choice to play an independent-minded doctor who regards both the suffragettes and Reeve with equal amusement.
One quibble: Newcomer Madeleine Potter seems slightly miscast as Verena. She gives a good performance, but there is something soft about her – an unconvincing element when she is meant to be a riveting and inspirational speaker. Verena’s talent never quite gets across the screen, and Reeve’s enchantment with her is thus a bit puzzling.
First published in the Herald, October 1984
The Merchant Ivory team would make another James adaptation, The Golden Bowl, which was the stiffest of the bunch. This review is fairly humdrum but I think I’m right about the movie; still, I’d give it another look after all these years. This came during the period when Reeve was deliberately steering as far away as possible from Superman, an admirable instinct that helped ground his career after a few years.