The texture of Henry James' prose style is one of the most
easily recognized in modern literature, but very much an acquired taste. I
remember the shock of my first exposure to it, years ago as a college freshman.
I found it so opaque, so self-contemplative and so subtle that it was almost
maddening: Nothing ever happened! But I plowed on ahead, through The
Ambassadors and Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl, and finally, some years
later, reading Portrait of a Lady, I think I finally grew into James.
is a novelist of passions buried by manners, of fearful characters who use the
rituals of proper society as a substitute for self-confidence, of people who
find themselves in positions where they cannot say what they mean and, as a
result, go mad or grow ill. Occasionally, a character of high spirits and
unrehearsed goodwill flutters through a James novel, but she (for it is almost
always a she) is usually doomed. The people who live forever in James hardly
ever seem to live at all.
that is why nothing ever seems to "happen." Motives are hidden, not
revealed. Characters are afraid of themselves and of others. They live within social
walls that prohibit uninhibited expression. They communicate by infinitely
subtle and textured speech, in which meanings are implied more often than
stated. What is really happening in a James novel moves from the page to the
reader almost by osmosis; at the end of a chapter we have absorbed the meaning
without James ever having had to be so vulgar as to state it.
Ivory's new film "The Europeans" is based on one of James' earlier
and less complex novels, but the James style is still too much for it, perhaps
because Ivory and his collaborators are so determined to make a film
reproducing the real atmosphere of the Master.
elegantly composed visuals, the stately progression of the scenes, the
deliberate understatement of the dialogue, are all as "faithful" to
James as a film can be. But that's exactly the film's problem: Ivory hasn't
found a way to make his own film, and has ended up with a classroom version of
James, a film with no juice or life of its own.
story involves a classic James situation in which rather innocent Americans are
exposed to the wiles of more worldly Europeans. The action is all within a
staid New England backwater where the Wentworth family apparently spends most
of its time going to church, going for walks, sitting around and clearing its
throat. Into this society come two cousins from Europe: the charming Felix (Tim
Woodward) and his sister, the intriguing Baroness Munster (Lee Remick). They
are cultured, sophisticated, witty and broke, and, not to make too fine a point,
they both need to get married.
Wentworths put their cousins in the nearby guesthouse, and then the intrigues
begin. There are only a few basic possibilities, and they are all explored.
Felix undertakes to woo his cousin Gertrude (Lisa Eichhorn) away from the
perspiring local minister. The baroness goes after the wealthy local landowner
while also flirting with a young Wentworth heir. One of the would-be courtships
succeeds, and the others fail.
follows the courtships against a backdrop of the local social life, which is
extremely leisurely (nobody in this movie ever seems to work). There are church
services, walks in the rain, flirtations at a dance, visits to each other's
houses, and a great deal of desultory conversation over breakfast. Everything
is photographed by Larry Pizer in beautiful compositions of white frame houses,
grassy meadows and autumn leaves. The movie is elegant. But nothing happens!
more fairly, things happen at such a deliberate pace, and the working out of
the plot is so inexorably predictable, that we don't find ourselves growing
involved. This is a film of perfect surfaces, but it doesn't develop characters
we really care about. That's where it parts company with Henry James. The
surfaces of his prose, so elaborate, so meticulous, so stubborn sometimes in
circling the real content of his scenes, eventually suggests the pools of
emotion beneath. But Ivory's "The Europeans" is finally just all
surface: illustrations for the novel.