Judge Clark Douglas is just outside the city limits of his final destination.
Welcome to Ocho Rios.
"Do sit down; you're getting so dramatic."
Facts of the Case
Latin American writer Jules Gund only wrote one novel over the course of his entire life, but it was one of those first novels so good that a second wasn't required for Jules to be regarded as one of the greats. Jules passed away recently, and aspiring writer Omar Razaghi (Omar Metwelly, Rendition) has hopes of writing an authorized autobiography of the man. Alas, Jules' closest family members have denied the request after much debate. Omar's girlfriend Deirdre (Alexandra Maria Lara, Youth Without Youth) doesn't believe that all hope is lost, and convinces Omar to fly to Latin America in order to speak with the family members in person.
Once he arrives, Omar is introduced to Jules' wife Caroline (Laura Linney, The Exorcism of Emily Rose), his brother Adam (Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs), Adam's lover Pete (Hiroyuki Sanada, Lost), and Jules' mistress Arden (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jane Eyre). Unusually, all of these individuals are living together on the same estate. What is their story? Why are they so hesitant to give Omar permission to write about Jules? Will the authorization ever be granted?
The legendary team of Merchant/Ivory made a lot of good films over the years, and even some great ones. It seems a strange concept to utter director James Ivory's name without quickly mentioning producer Ismail Merchant, but now that Merchant has passed away, Ivory is forced to carry on without his longtime collaborator by his side. I couldn't help but wonder whether things would feel different in The City of Your Final Destination, Ivory's first directorial outing since Merchant's death. It's something of a comfort to discover that nothing much has changed—it's another quiet, restrained, intelligent drama that I'm certain Mr. Merchant would have been happy to put his own name to. Granted, it doesn't rank with Ivory's best work, but then it had been quite a while since the Merchant/Ivory team had made something as strong as The Remains of the Day or Howards End, anyway.
The film is one of quiet pleasures, a wistful visit to a lovely place filled with melancholy people. There are no moments of earth-shattering drama to be found; no moments of shocking personal revelation or jolting plot developments. It begins as a character study of a man who never appears on-screen; we learn a great deal about Jules Gund by looking at the people he has left behind. However, Omar soon begin to take more interest in the living family members than in the late author, so as his perspective changes the film's perspective does as well.
The wife, the mistress, and the brother are the three people responsible for making the decision on whether Omar can write the authorized biography. Adam has been in favor of it from the beginning, as he finds no real harm in the idea of someone writing about his brother's life. After all, he notes wisely, Omar could always just write an unauthorized biography and get away with saying all kinds of scandalous things. If it's authorized at least the family will have a say in what is written. Caroline has been against the idea from the start, consistently refusing to budge in the slightest on the matter. Adam suggests that this is simply because Caroline enjoys saying "no" to things; an idea which Caroline initially does little to contradict. Arden is the one on the fence, as she's hesitant about the idea but seems open to the possibility of changing her mind. Her openness to change seems largely motivated by the fact that Omar is a kind and attractive man that she can't help falling for.
The film devotes its time to peeling back the layers of these characters, even when it doesn't seem like certain characters have layers. Most of what we need to know about Adam seems to be right there on the surface; he's a worldly charmer who speaks his mind and encourages open dialogue. However, note the manner in which he constantly attempts to urge his lover to move away and start a better life—there's a feeling of guilt there; a feeling that he somehow doesn't deserve to live the marvelous life he has. It's also interesting to compare and contrast the personalities of Caroline and Arden: the former is cold to a fault, the latter is trusting to a fault, and their default modes have had a tendency to lead them both to unhappy places.
The film will work best for those who enjoy literate films with compelling characters, as watching the film has the relaxed pace and mental stimulation of reading an immersive novel (the film is based on an acclaimed book of the same name). The performances are excellent across the board, particularly Gainsbourg as the vulnerable Arden. It's such a heartfelt and nuanced piece of work, plus it's such a relief to see Gainsbourg smiling warmly again after the hell she inflicted and endured in Lars Von Trier's Antichrist. Linney can play terse and emotionally distant very well and does so once again in this film, while Hopkins handles challenging scenes with effortless grace. Hopkins can be a ham when the role calls for it (watch him crank up the theatrics in popcorn thrillers like Fracture and The Wolfman), but he can also be such a sublimely subtle actor. Re-teaming with Ivory was a good move which serves as a reminder of that. I also quite liked Alexandra Maria Lara as Deidre, who plays a surprisingly large role in the film's second half. A lesser movie would have turned her into a simple cliché, but she constantly surprises us with her complexity.
The DVD transfer is solid enough, nicely spotlighting the absolutely gorgeous scenery and cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe. Detail is a little lacking at times, but the colors are vibrant and blacks are fairly deep throughout. The audio is expectedly understated, rarely rising above a loud murmur throughout. Ivory has traded longtime collaborator Richard Robbins for composer Jorge Drexler, who provides a bit of Latin American flair to the proceedings. Supplements include a selected-scene audio commentary with Ivory and a solid little 20-minute making-of featurette.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As charming and pleasant as it is to spend time with these characters over the course of the film, the ending is fumbled. In the past, Ivory has demonstrated a gift for finding intense emotion beneath a restrained exterior (some of the scenes from The Remains of the Day are almost unbearably moving), but he doesn't quite pull the trick off this time. The final scenes seem so insistent on not being over-the-top that they actually fail to register, turning what should be remarkably powerful moments into forgettable footnotes.
The City of Your Final Destination is a likable film that doesn't insult the viewer's intelligence. It's a shame the emotional impact isn't stronger, though.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Screen Media
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