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‘Enchanted April’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 07, 1992


Mike Newell
Miranda Richardson;
Joan Plowright;
Josie Lawrence;
Polly Walker;
Alfred Molina;
Michael Kitchen;
Jim Broadbent
Parental guidance suggested

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Mike Newell's "Enchanted April" is the sort of blanched, rarefied, chicly literate study of British manners and class distinctions that usually flows like so much flat champagne from the vineyards of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. It's a white-glove movie, a monocle stuck in its eye and its nose in the air.

Is it fair to ask why usually sophisticated Americans turn to mush over this particular variety of moribund ersatz art? Can so many of us really be that obsessed with the class mores of the British? Is it because they remind us that we could be home reading?

Why, then, choose a form of filmmaking that, in this case, provides neither the subtle satisfactions of reading nor the sensual excitement of moviegoing? The answer, I think, is that "Enchanted April" and the other movies of its type represent an affirmation of culture, a harking back to the safe haven of good taste and classical values. But even by these standards, "Enchanted April" is a pretty dry cracker.

The story begins when Lotte (Josie Lawrence), a bored solicitor's wife living in London, spies an ad in the Times:

"To those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine. Small medieval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let furnished for the month of April ..."

And if anyone ever needed "wisteria and sunshine," it's Lotte. But to afford her adventure she needs to enlist the help of three other women. The first, her neighbor Rose (Miranda Richardson) -- who, like Lotte, is trapped in a loveless marriage -- is easily persuaded to come along. To fill the other slots, they place an ad of their own, and out of the handful that apply, only two are suitable. The older of the pair is a formidable grande dame named Mrs. Fisher (Joan Plowright), who in her Victorian youth walked with Britain's most eminent minds, but who in her dotage has grown increasingly brittle and curmudgeonly. Rounding out the foursome is Lady Caroline (Polly Walker), a radiant, dark-eyed beauty from one of London's richest families who's weary of the social whirl and the incessant attention of men.

So two women who are bored with their husbands and their lives run away to revitalize themselves by taking a little break from their routines. No, they don't stop in a bar along the way, get a little tipsy and blast away a cowboy for trying to rape one of them. But "Enchanted April" does come across like a "Masterpiece Theatre" adaptation of "Thelma & Louise," with "wisteria and sunshine" instead of bullets and body bags.

In terms of plot, though, it's more like "City Slickers" for Mensa wannabes. All four women have grown stale and dim; they're all at a turning point, each with her own knotty problem to solve. And during the course of the film, one by one, all the problems are explored and dealt with and neatly put away. Yes, it's that banal: They get back their smiles.

The reason everything works out so well is that the villa, which is called San Salvatore, is sort of magical or something. "Enchanted," you might say. At any rate, everyone who visits becomes infused with tranquility and happiness; they blossom, in other words, revealing the better angels of their natures. Why? We don't know. Perhaps it's all that Italian sun.

As Lotte and Rose, both Lawrence and Richardson are relentlessly dowdy; the look like the "before" photos in fashion make-overs. Compared with their hosts, Mrs. Fisher and Lady Caroline seem like dazzling exotics, a pair of peacocks nesting with sparrows. Still, both women are barely more than sketches; it's the sparrows who dominate.

Newell, an English filmmaker ("The Good Father") working here from Peter Barnes's adaptation of Elizabeth Von Arnim's 1922 novel, must be something of a dour bird himself. Not even a whiff of those Mediterranean breezes can snap him out of his doldrums. It's possible, I guess, to confuse this malaise with civilized good taste, but me, I'd rather have Billy Crystal.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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