“THE EUROPEANS” (1979) Review
Merchant-Ivory Productions first began as a production company in 1961. Formed by Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory, the film company produced and released a series of movies, usually written by German-born screenwriter,
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. A few years before Merchant-Ivory entered its artistic heyday of the 1980s and 90s, it released “THE EUROPEANS”, an adaptation of Henry James’ 1878 short novel, “The Europeans: A Sketch”:
Set in antebellum Massachusetts in either 1849 or 1850, “THE EUROPEANS” begins with the arrival of an European visitor named Felix Young, who is in the United States to visit his American cousins, the Wentworths. The first member of the family he meets is Gertrude Wentworth, who is shirking attendance at church. Felix eventually meets the rest of the family – patriarch Mr. Wentworth, Charlotte and the youngest member, Clifford. He also meets Mr. Brand, the local minister who hopes to marry Gertrude. Felix’s sister, Eugenia Munster, arrives the next day. Not only does she meet the Wentworths and Mr. Brand; but also Robert and Lizzie Acton, a brother and sister who happen to be neighbors of the Wentworths.
It is apparent that Gertrude has not only become enamored of her European cousins’ lifestyle, but especially Felix. Meanwhile, Eugenia and Robert have grown increasingly attracted to one another. However, Eugenia is reluctant to sign the divorce papers that would signal the end of her morganatic marriage to Prince Adolf of Silberstadt-Schreckenstein, whose family wants the marriage to end for political reasons. Despite Eugenia’s marriage and her obvious dislike of her cousins’ Unitarian society, she managed to become attracted to Robert . . . much to his sister Lizzie’s distaste. As for Felix, he and Gertrude become romantically involved. Unfortunately, the Wentworths are not thrilled by this new development between the distant cousins. All of them expect Gertrude to marry Mr. Brand – including Charlotte, who happens to be in love with the minister. The story ends up as a clash between 19th century European and American sensibilities and culture; and also a series of love stories or subplots that feature family disapproval, procrastination and bad communication.
I might as well say it. “THE EUROPEANS” is not exactly an example of the Merchant Ivory team at its cinematic best. Mind you, the movie is visually lovely. And thanks to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay, it does featuring some amusing wit. But there is something archaic, almost static about this film. I get the feeling that Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory were either overwhelmed by the film’s period setting. Or else they, along with Prawer Jhabvala, were determined to indulged in some cliched view of stoic 19th century New England. There were times when “THE EUROPEANS” struck me as a bit too slow, almost bloodless. This pristine, yet chilly style even permeated the movie’s production designs managed by Joyce Herlihy.
But there were plenty of aspects of “THE EUROPEANS” that I enjoyed. Cinematographer Larry Pizer beautifully captured the New England locations of the film. Although Henry James’ story was set during the spring, Merchant, Ivory and their production team were so dazzled by the region’s beauty during the fall season that they decided to change the story’s period. I was also very impressed by Judy Moorcroft’s costume designs. Not only did I find her costumes beautiful, but I was also impressed by Moorcroft’s successful attempt to make her costumes a near re-creation of 1849-1850 fashions in Western countries. A good example is the following outfit worn by Lee Remick:
Despite my complaints about the movie’s staid adaptation of James’ novel, I must admit that I still managed to enjoy the story. What I found surprising about the movie’s plot is that the so-called battle between the cultures did not result in any real winners. Did American or European culture win? My answer is “neither”. But individuals won, especially three particular characters – Felix Young and the two Wentworth sisters, Gertrude and Charlotte. The romance . . . or flirtation between Eugenia Munster and Robert Acton proved to be a bit more complicated. Despite their flirtations and battles of will, I came away with the particular feeling that neither really triumphed in the end. Yet at the same time, I found it equally hard to believe that either of them had suffered a sound defeat. The Eugenia-Robert romance proved to be one of the most complex literary relationships I have ever encountered. Most of the performances in “THE EUROPEANS” proved to be solid, especially those from Tim Woodward, Lisa Eichhorn, Robert Addy and Norman Snow. But the two performances that really impressed me came from Lee Remick and Robin Ellis, who did a marvelous job in conveying the complicated Eugenia-Robert romance.
As I had stated earlier, I would never consider “THE EUROPEANS” as one of the best movies produced by the Merchant-Ivory team. I found it a bit slow and at times, bloodless. It lacked the earthy humor and drama of some of the production company’s bigger successes in the 1980s and 90s. On the other hand, I must admit that it looked beautiful and still featured some complex characterizations, thanks to a solid cast led by Lee Remick and Robin Ellis. With patience, one could overlook the movie’s flaws and still manage to enjoy Henry James’ tale.