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‘Enchanted April’

By Desson Howe
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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When timid Englishwoman Josie Lawrence sees an advertisement in the London Times offering a month at an Italian castle retreat for "those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine," it ignites a quiescent desire. This is England during World War I. A dutiful wife should never entertain such impulses. But in the delightful "Enchanted April," she acts upon them -- and drags three other women into the bargain. It's the most subversive event in their lives.

Director Mike Newell, usually associated with darker dramas such as "Dance With a Stranger," and screenwriter Peter Barnes, adapting Elizabeth von Arnim's 1922 novel, create a subtle and moving drama. In this mutual enchantment fable, all of its characters are allowed to bloom. Lawrence's transformation affects everyone around her, including fellow renters Miranda Richardson, Joan Plowright and Polly Walker.

But before all that, Lawrence must start her lowercase revolution at home. Married to priggish, domineering solicitor Alfred Molina, she's kept hopelessly in his shadow. To tell him she intends to vacation alone, with other women, is an imposing ordeal. She appeals to neighbor Richardson, who is being similarly quashed by novelist-husband Jim Broadbent. A restrained personality, Richardson is eventually charmed by Lawrence's abundant enthusiasm. When the two friends approach castle owner Michael Kitchen, he instinctively closes the door on the unattended women. But Richardson inserts her foot in the door. These women mean business. Let the men around them beware.

After informing their appalled husbands of their plans, they look for others to split the rent. They find aristocrat Walker, who could use a break from her active social life, and Plowright, a dour personality given to constant disapproval and shameless name dropping of Victorian literati.

Arriving in Italy, the four bicker before reaching a peaceable equilibrium. But rather than eschew their husbands, Lawrence and Richardson decide to send for them. It's time to renegotiate their relationships, not destroy them. Come they do. So does (available) owner Kitchen. What follows is a sort of "Pre-Summer Night's Dream" with farcical shenanigans on the side, in which everyone (men included) finds new love or new contentment. It's one mutual self-fulfillment trip.

As the movie's unwitting angel, Lawrence is an utter delight. Brazen utterances come out of her mouth before her brain has time to put on the brakes. Richardson, described aptly in the movie as a "disappointed madonna," is as serene as a rose. Walker makes a perfect, self-obsessed beauty with untapped sensitivities underneath. Plowright, a theatrical virtuoso, uses her cane and withering glance to amusing effect. "In my day," she says frostily at the dinner table, " 'husbands' and 'beds' were rarely spoken in the same sentence."

It would seem from a spate of films lately (most adapted from E. M. Forster novels) that the English can only find their warmer, truer selves abroad -- usually in Italy. "Enchanted April" takes this familiar path, but traipses along with charm and glory, as if for the very first time.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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