Henry James novels have made terrific movies; this precise, strongly-felt adaptation expresses interior feelings that James — the master of ambiguity — may not have intended, yet seem essential to the story. A dynamic young female public speaker transfixes all around her, and is taken in and mentored by an activist for the women’s movement. But will a conventional, confining, repressive romance undo a perfect political relationship? The Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala combination does a powerful book full justice; Vanessa Redgrave got the awards attention but it’s also one of the best films by Christopher Reeve.
Cohen Film Collection
1984 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 122 min. / Street Date May 21, 2019 / 30.98
Starring: Christopher Reeve, Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Tandy, Madeleine Potter, Nancy Marchand, Wesley Addy, Barbara Bryne, Linda Hunt, Charles McCaughan, Nancy New, Jon Van Ness, Wallace Shawn, Peter Bogyo.
Cinematography: Walter Lassally
Film Editor: Mrk Potter Jr., Katherine Wenning
Original Music: Richard Robbins
Written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, from the book by Henry James
Produced by Ismail Merchant
Directed by James Ivory
The Bostonians is said to be one of few Henry James tales that doesn’t take place in the Old World. It has a similar aim of social criticism as say, his Daisy Miller, but with an added non-PC political angle that has made it mildly controversial. But that aspect scores second next to the film version’s gallery of fascinating characters, embodied by a first-rate cast. This is the kind of story that would today become an eight-hour miniseries; it’s a perfect fit for a single feature.
A 4K restoration will make this a happy discovery for those seeking classic fare with substance. It plays out in 1876, in locations in New York and Boston that still exist today.
Boston in the Centennial Year, twenty years after the Civil War, appears to be hotbed of spiritual humbuggery and fierce political movements. Committed feminist Olive Chancellor (Vanessa Redgrave) invites her Alabama cousin Basil Ransome (Christopher Reeve) to town with the idea of introduding him to her sister Adeline (Nancy New). They both end up competing for the attention and affection of Miss Verena Tarrant (Madeleine Potter), an oratorical firebrand they witness shilling for her father, a fake healer who calls himself a doctor (Wesley Addey). The conservative Basil scoffs at the notion of women’s rights, but he is so taken with Verena that he chooses to play the long game to win her. Shunning Basil as an ideological menace, Olive sees Verena as a magnet to promote her political cause, the advancement of the rights of women.
Verena’s career as a public speaker takes off. The two women live together in as affectionate political idealists. But Basil keeps coming back, wearing down Verena’s resistance. In New York, Verena is courted by Henry Burrage (Jon Van Ness Philip), and his practical mother (Jessica Tandy) takes the measure of Olive and her influence. Basil strategizes by winning the confidence of Miss Birdseye (Jessica Tandy), a much-venerated abolitionist and women’s rights icon, now in her waning years. The agreeable lady doctor Dr. Prance (Linda Hunt) sometimes takes messages for Basil, as well. His sworn enemy is of course Olive Chancellor, who grows increasingly more possessive of her protégé, and more hostile to suggestions that Verena reconsider her ordained mission to change history.
Beautifully written and performed, The Bostonians is a fine portrait of an upperclass social set that has leisure time for spiritual soothsayers and newfangled liberal movements. Post- Civil War Boston appears to have been a hotbed of movements to cure society of its ills; a dynamic speaker can put a cause over the top. Olive Chancellor is such a zealot that she wants to make Verena into a centennial superstar for her ideas. She’s raging against human nature, though: however strongly Verena feels about Olive and her ideas, she’s still a teenager who wants a full life. Olive wants her to live in monk-like denial of worldly pleasures. Or does she want Verena for herself, without acknowledging it? Today, the relationship would be considered sexual as well, even if not physically consummated.
The actors are used exceedingly well. We’re told that Vanessa Redgrave’s Olive is far more sympathetic than the woman in the book; the film can’t have been helped by Redgrave’s own political activism. We all love Christopher Reeve yet we’ve seen him miscast in many pictures; he’s perfect here, entirely credible as a Southerner (and war veteran) who wants to tame Verena and sweep Olive’s Boston liberal aside. Madeleine Potter’s Verena embodies a romantic ideal for the men who flock to court her. One is called Mr. Gracie, and I wonder if the idea is that his home eventually became the residence of NYC Mayors.
The favorites stack up fast. Nancy Marchand (Ladybug Ladybug) is a wise member of New York society who angles to pry Verena away from Olive, to marry his son; Marchand conveys exactly what she thinks of Olive’s too-intimate, grasping relationship with the young woman. The movie doesn’t say so, but Henry James’s The Bostonians is said to have coined the now-obscure phrase ‘Boston Marriage’ — a close, socially tolerated living arrangement between women.
Any opportunity to enjoy Jessica Tandy is a delight. Her Miss Birdseye was apparently born on the 4th of July, and the birthday party scene combines our affection for the actress and big helping of Yankee patriotism. Wallace Shawn’s character is a combination reporter-promoter who would like to promote Verena to make money, as her spiritualist-healer father Mr. Tarrant has failed to do.
Mr. Tarrant is worth the price of admission just on his own. With a shock of hair and a theatrical manner, Wesley Addy creates an indelible impression as a high-class healer-huckster — he reminds us of Ernest Thesiger in Bride of Frankenstein, but as a sober Yankee. Tarrant ends up selling his permission for Verena to live with Olive, to the tune of $5,000 per year. It’s like the owner of the Elephant Man being compensated for having his income-producing property taken away. Tarrant’s dotty wife is played by the favorite Barbara Bryne, ‘Jack’s Mother’ from Into the Woods.
The action ranges between Boston, the Rhode Island coastline and New York City; screenwriter Jhabvala has found a satisfactory button for a story that in print reportedly finishes in a less dramatic way. We’re left to wonder if Verena has a chance at happiness. Has she been robbed of a grand political future, to become the property of a husband whose ardor might fade after a few weeks of marriage? She might well find satisfaction as a conventional wife and mother, only to be told to stay in the house for the rest of her days.
Some might not appreciate The Bostonians as a period story. A feminist could complain that Olive is portrayed not as an exponent for social good, but as a man-hating closeted Lesbian. Others could be incensed that Olive and Verena do not embrace a sexual relationship. In 1876, the social taboos made it possible for Boston women of this class to hide such feeling under six levels of denial. It of course happens today, and is not considered mentally healthy.
I like the story because it blames no one for following their true nature. In terms of getting what she wants, Olive Chancellor loses. You can’t make a binding contract for a person’s life, although governments, churches and companies get away with it. Olive should realize this when she entreats Verena to promise loyalty forever, and then backpedals the vow into a less binding ‘I hope you do.’ It’s a complex look at they way people enlist others in causes.
Cohen Media Group’s Blu-ray of The Bostonians is a 4k restoration. Walter Lassally’s cinematography appears to be filtered for a subtle period look, with colors and contrast dulled down for interiors. Thus the show just isn’t as candy colored as Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence.
Cohen’s extras give us director Ivory talking about his film in three separate venues. He speaks directly to the camera in one, discusses the show with a critic in another, and in a third takes questions from a screening audience. Ivory explains that Redgrave came on at the last minute, so quickly that a dress made for Glenn Close had to be altered to be longer! As can be expected, one Q&A audience member uses her question to introduce an entire row of fellow feminists, that compliment Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s work as a highly-awarded woman screenwriter. In other words, everything is politicized. That was reportedly James Ivory’s problem as well; he thought the politics were just context for a story about the American character.
The rewritten ending gives Vanessa Redgrave a chance to express (in character) feminist sympathies in an unplanned speech. I refer viewers to Redgrave’s stunning role in the musical Oh! What a Lovely War, where she plays an anti-war activist in WW1 London, shouting at the top of her voice in outrage at the slaughter that’s killing an entire generation of English boys. She’s a genuine powderkeg.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Interview, making-of discussion and an after-screening talk with James Ivory, trailers.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: June 7, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson