Director: James Ivory
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Producer Ishmail Merchant and director James Ivory are the Kublai Khans of film, building their stately pleasure domes for the cinematic Xanadus of the world. Appreciating one of their films is like being a tourist strolling through the Louvre; you get a chance to suck in a little culture while showing off your good taste to your companions and acquiring a few pearls to drop into conversations back home. The “quality” films of Merchant/Ivory are like the ones the French New Wave rebelled against, but given the British origins of the creative team and the times—the rise of neoconservatism in Britain and the United States—these paeans to elegant elitism became among the most watched and honored of their time.
I don’t want to sound like a reverse snob—I have enjoyed the elegant craftsmanship of these films, and I certainly have nothing against their literary source material. Howards End (1992) is one of my favorite films, as is The Bostonians (1984)—is it more than a coincidence that Vanessa Redgrave stars in both? But the reverential tone of many of their films makes me feel less like I am entering a pleasure dome than an Orthodox synagogue. In films, there is such a thing as too much class. I’m happy to say, however, that before they became Merchant/Ivory, they were merchant/ivory, given to a certain amount of wit as they assayed the classics. The Europeans, an earlier work of the team, benefits greatly from its mid 19th century American setting—the pair and their regular screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala seem at home with Henry James—and its low budget. Without the means to dazzle us with European finery, Merchant and Ivory created a gentle comedy of manners that unintentionally, but presciently, comments on the before and after phases of their careers.
The Europeans are Felix Young (Tim Woodward) and his sister Eugenia (Lee Remick). They have crossed the Atlantic to call on their wealthy cousins, the Wentworths, at their estate in a suburb of Boston. We are prepared in the opening scene for the attitudes their arrival will arouse. Gertrude Wentworth (Lisa Eichhorn) is idly appreciating the beauty of the grounds around her empty home; this being Sunday, her father (Wesley Addy), her sister Charlotte (Nancy New), and her brother Clifford (Tim Choate) are on their way to church. Mr. Brand (Norman Snow), a young preacher, appears and and asks if he may accompany her to church. Gertrude says she is not going. When asked why, she replies, “Because the sky is such a beautiful shade of blue.” Mr. Brand tries unsuccessfully to plight his troth to her—apparently a regular occurrence—but she refuses to allow him to speak and sends him on his way while she repairs to the gazebo to read a romantic novel. It’s easy to see that when Felix and Eugenia enter their lives, Gertrude will be enchanted and Mr. Brand and the rest of the Wentworth household will be wary.
Felix finds Gertrude at the gazebo after knocking on the door of the vacant house and wandering around the grounds. He has walked the entire distance from Boston—seven and a half miles says Gertrude—so we know instantly that he hasn’t the money to afford a carriage. That luxury is saved for Eugenia so that she can make her grand entrance the next day and act on the intelligence Felix has gathered about the household, particularly the information that another cousin, Robert Acton (Robin Ellis), is single and wealthy. In a scene of comic awkwardness, Eugenia flits about in a gossipy, flirtatious manner, dropping backhanded compliments left and right to the befuddled silence of the modest, upright Wentworths. Robert and his sister Lizzie (Kristin Griffith) are more worldly—Robert has traveled to Africa!—and unlike the reflexively cautious Wentworths, are also more knowingly suspicious of the Youngs. After Felix and Eugenia have left, the family debates what to do. Since they are relatives, they must be offered some hospitality. But invite them to stay in the big house? Charity only goes so far; they are given the small cottage.
Eugenia is in full flutter as she gleefully helps her French maid (Gedda Petry) unpack and surveys the curious denizens of the big house gathering below, as though waiting for the first volley of her assault on Puritan temperance. Her campaign to win Acton is obvious and fairly graceless, even to Robert, but he allows himself to be charmed and relishes the chance to bask in her beautiful frivolity. After all, Eugenia isn’t the only one who is bored by the “blessed” quiet of the country. Gertrude, too, is quite bewitched by Felix, and he is just enough of a boy to be sincere in returning her affections and wanting to marry her—that he will be able to help his sister if she should fail in her quest to become mistress of the Acton estate is something perhaps only she, and we, have calculated.
The Europeans has a lovely hint of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to it. Spring fever is in the air, even though the practical Charlotte protests to Gertrude that it is autumn, and sensible romantic arrangements are cast aside for moments of pleasurable abandon. Repression of emotional and sensual urges is a common enough theme in Henry James, and one that Merchant/Ivory will return to with a riot of rectitude in The Remains of the Day (1993). Here, however, the pair lets idleness have its due, as Clifford laps at Eugenia’s heels and resolutely fails to learn any manners from her at all—a more amusingly crude creature you never will find in any M/I production—and Mr. Wentworth turns out to be almost as feckless as any father of daughters Jane Austen could have created. There are small moments of physical comedy that are inspired, the best of which has Felix imploring Charlotte to soften her father’s heart toward his marriage to Gertrude. He sits next to her and animatedly leans in and out as he speaks, while Charlotte bobs back and forth so as not to touch him. The movements are not overstated, but still manage to leave one in tears of laughter by the scene’s finish.
Merchant and Ivory also had the inspired idea to shoot inside actual period homes. The smallish, low-ceilinged rooms seem to encourage the retiring manner of their inhabitants while closing in on the expansive personality of Eugenia. When she takes in the fall colors for which New England is rightly famous without making a sound, it appears she understands that America has its own kind of crown jewels, but whether she will be able to accustom herself to them seems very much in doubt. Yankee wisdom may need to save her from her own artificial desires.
With the exception of the radiant and ever-fascinating Lee Remick, the cast is largely unknown. I enjoyed Addy’s sober silliness, and Nancy New was a delightful discovery. Lisa Eichhorn did not deliver in a crucial role, but Tim Woodward’s jolly ardency made their scenes together work. Robin Ellis was a convincing foil for Remick, willing to be pleased, but slightly enigmatic, like the rest of the American characters. Indeed, these Americans seem a bit like aliens whose customs and manners look familiar but not natural. While I think Ivory could have made more of this strange affect in the way of comedic moments, that is a quibble. The Europeans is a fair wind in the musty Merchant/Ivory oeuvre.