Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.
United Kingdom/USA, 1984. Merchant Ivory Productions, WGBH, Rediffusion, Almi Entertainment Finance Corporation. Screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, based on the novel by Henry James. Cinematography by Walter Lassally. Produced by Ismail Merchant. Music by Richard Robbins. Production Design by Leo Austin. Costume Design by Jenny Beavan, John Bright. Film Editing by Mark Potter Jr., Katherine Wenning. Academy Awards 1984. Golden Globe Awards 1984. New York Film Critics Awards 1984.
Henry James’s novel is given first-class treatment by the team of Merchant Ivory. Vanessa Redgrave plays the leader of a group of nineteenth-century Americans dedicated to the advancement of women’s rights. The group finds itself with real hope for a bright future when they encounter a gifted orator (Madeleine Potter) whose powerful speeches about women in a changing world are practically channeled from the spirit world. Redgrave gets very close with Potter (too close for critics of the original novel when it was published), but everything is threatened when a strapping aristocrat from the south (Christopher Reeve) comes along to woo the young girl away. Now, Redgrave must go head-to-head with this chauvinist in an effort to protect both her personal and professional interests, while Potter’s personal lack of investment in the subject she is so good at giving lectures on seems to be swaying her towards marrying the man. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s thorough screenplay, while not the liveliest piece around, whittles down the novel to its essentials and fleshes out the colourful characters, leaving James’s objectives of the story more or less as controversially ambiguous as they were in the novel. Does he see feminism as a sham operation by bored, sexually repressed spinsters? Or does he merely lament that this noble cause suffers setbacks from members who put too much faith in the wrong methods of advancement? An added ending will infuriate purists, but its inclusion caps off Redgrave’s genius performance and provides a satisfying possibility for the issues at hand.