"I don't believe you mean what you preach. No, no. It's just your sweet nature. You always want to please someone. Miss Chancellor, your parents. Whoever else is dear to you. But it's not really you. You're meant for something different. You're meant for privacy. You're meant for love. For me."—Basil Ransom
The Bostonians is a 1984 film adaptation of Henry James' novel, brought to the screen by producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (A Room with a View, Howard's End, The Remains of the Day). This DVD is part of the Merchant Ivory Collection, produced by Home Vision Entertainment in association with The Criterion Collection, and under the supervision of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory.
Facts of the Case
Set in Boston just after the Civil War, The Bostonians concerns a mesmeric orator named Verena Tarrant. During her celebrated movements through the New England upper crust, the young woman gets caught in a battle of wills between a Women's Movement spinster named Olive Chancellor (Vanessa Redgrave, Julia) and Olive's cousin Basil Ransom (Christopher Reeve, Superman), a Southern gentlemen and old-fashioned chauvinist. Verena's relationship with these opposites sets her on a path toward self-discovery, and forces her to make a choice that will change all their lives.
Adapting Henry James for the screen is not easy. His work is dense, ornate, some would say long-winded, and much of what happens happens inside his characters' heads. Narrative intensity tends to be rooted in the dichotomy between what characters think and what they say to one another, but rarely in anything they do. Modern readers often respond to James' novels and stories the way filmgoers respond to…well…Merchant Ivory films: they find them more effective as tranquilizers than pieces of entertainment. Published in 1886, The Bostonians is one of James' earlier and more action-packed pieces, and by action-packed I mean sometimes characters raise their voices at one another, and occasionally they weep. Personally, I've always sort of liked James (in small doses), and if one is going to watch a film adaptation of one of his books, they don't get much better than those produced by the Merchant Ivory team (in addition to The Bostonians, the trio also adapted The Golden Bowl , and The Europeans , which is also being released on DVD as part of the Merchant Ivory Collection). James is all about subtlety and fine detail, and Merchant Ivory embrace that for the most part, finding a way to make it work in the more overt medium of film. They rarely take the more obvious visual path. They don't cheat the text or play in film clichés.
Jhabvala did an admirable job with the script, but James purists beware: she changed the novel's ending and, in so doing, stripped some of James' intellectual sensibility from the tale—he was decidedly not a feminist. Jhabvala's tinkering has the effect of modernizing the narrative, making it more palatable to audiences of today (or 1984). Still, while the film manipulates its audience to be more sympathetic to the suffragette Olive Chancellor than the source material (which shows no fondness for her), Jhabvala doesn't go so overboard with revisions that the movie feels false to its 19th-century setting. She walks a fine revisionist line with much style and grace. It would have been easy, for instance, to make Olive's repressed lesbianism more overt, and turn the story into a traditional love triangle with the physical act of sex at its core—easier, but more hackneyed, too (and, though the novel became the source of the term "Boston marriage"—meaning two single women living together without the support of a man; winkingly hinting at the possibility of a sexual relationship without stating it openly—trying to establish from text alone that James considered Olive a latent homosexual would be tenuous). The single downside to Jhabvala's changes is a speech by Olive at the film's end that is, I suppose, intended to be powerfully inspirational but plays instead as painfully cornball and out of place. Meant to temper James' original ending, it does nothing to soften Ransom's chauvinism or undo Verena's being forced to choose between two stark versions of reality, without the option of integrating the more reasonable aspects of each into a new and more moderate way of living. It's simply mawkish and out of place.
In the accompanying featurette, Ivory lays all credit for the film's more sympathetic take on Olive at the feet of Redgrave's excellent performance. Indeed, she is that good in the film, and was rightly nominated for nearly every major award that year (though she won none of them), but the director fawns too much: Redgrave's work is grounded in Jhabvala's. The actress is quite capable of making us dislike her, if that's what the role calls for. Ivory similarly credits Reeve, and his superman charisma, with making the decidedly not-so-modern Ransom more likable than he otherwise would have been. Reeve's performance certainly will be a revelation to anyone who's only familiar with his turns in the red cape. It is he and Redgrave at the center of things, and Reeve proves himself a capable leading man and a forceful actor, using his movie star looks as a weapon against the spinster Olive. But some of the affinity we feel for Ransom is grounded in James' view of the character. The melding of Jhabvala's and James' opposite sensibilities actually benefits the film, dividing our loyalties more evenly in the battle of wills at the story's center.
But for Madeleine Potter, The Bostonians might be among the best of the Merchant Ivory oeuvre. The young actress is blown off the screen by Redgrave and Reeve, taking with her some much needed narrative juice. The only thing mesmeric about Verena's oratory is Redgrave's responses to it—she sells the girl's talent far better than the girl herself. And cute as she is, Potter just doesn't match up with Reeve; there's no clear sense why a bachelor lawyer with his looks would select her in particular out of all the single young women in Boston and New York society (it's supposed to be the power of her speaking that draws him, but the performance just isn't there). The movie was produced too early to benefit from costume drama maven Helena Bonham Carter (A Room with a View), but I couldn't help imagining how much better it would have been with her more forceful presence. In many ways, The Bostonians is the story of a young woman being unfairly manipulated by two people, both of whom she loves. One never fully feels that aspect of the narrative because Potter wasn't capable of giving Verena the weight the role required. In the end, the film is about two characters, Olive and Ransom, but it would have been more satisfying had it managed to be about three.
HVE and Criterion have done a stellar job bringing The Bostonians to DVD. Would we expect otherwise? With the exception of some isolated and minor source damage, the 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is nearly perfect. Especially impressive is the accurate rendering of the film's many gauzy, filtered shots—it's not an easy thing to reproduce in the digital realm, but the presentation on this disc is free of pixelation and as subtle and beautiful as Ivory and cinematographer Walter Lassally intended. The HVE/Criterion transfer aesthetic is built on the principle of creating a digital image that looks very much like film. With The Bostonians, they have once again delivered on that aesthetic. The disc is visually stunning.
The stereo sound is serviceable. Dialogue is always clear, although there are instances of noticeable shifts in ambiance around pieces of looped dialogue. That's a source flaw, however, and there's not a lot HVE could have done to fix it.
The central extra on the disc is a 15-minute featurette called Conversation with the Filmmakers. Merchant, Ivory, and Jhabvala all appear in recently recorded interview segments, giving background on the project's genesis and production. It's not exactly a wellspring of information, but neither is it a fluffy electronic press kit piece.
The Bostonians is a lesser work by the Merchant Ivory team, but it's still a solid film. Frustrating perhaps because it had the potential to be so much better, it makes for a fascinating viewing experience if only because one can see the filmmakers developing the grasp of narrative subtlety and visual beauty that would bring them acclaim with their next release, A Room with a View.
And the performances of Redgrave and Reeve are not to be missed.
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Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• Conversation with the Filmmakers
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