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‘Where Angels Fear to Tread’ (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 20, 1992

The hushed, Moroccan-bound reverence of Charles Sturridge's "Where Angels Fear to Tread" tells us that we have once again arrived in Lord Upthestairs-Downthestairs Allthestairs' wood-paneled library for a knowing contemplation of British literature. Sturridge's faithful adaptation of E.M. Forster's tastefully reproachful first novel reminds us that the English do not travel well in balmier climes, as they are unable to leave their tea-sipping, emotionally parsimonious ways behind.

Sturridge, who also directed the adaptations of "Brideshead Revisited" and "A Handful of Dust," seems less like a driven director than an impersonal subtitler. He takes no liberties with the material; he merely translates the story from page to screen. On the whole, it's rather like reading without the effort of holding the book. For many, this will do quite nicely, thank you. Others will find it all too stranglingly Anglophilic, which is perhaps the point.

"Where Angels Fear to Tread," like his second novel "A Room With a View," was inspired by Forster's first trip to passionately sunny Italy early in the century. Though they're clearly companion pieces, this room has a more rueful, even tragic satire of the British self-important and priggish worldview. In this, of course, there is nothing new, and from our perspective here at the end of history, nothing particularly universal about imperialists on extended vacation. To be sure, however, there are many more domestic homilies to be digested.

Set alternately in England and Italy, the story contrasts the cool conservatism of the British gentry with the passionate warmth of the Italian hoi polloi through the marriage of a winsome middle-aged widow (Helen Mirren) to a genial Italian dentist's son (Giovanni Guidelli), who is not only beneath her station but half her age. On learning of the engagement, her strait-laced in-laws dispatch one of their own (Rupert Graves) to stop the match, but Mirren and the boy have married.

Graves, the one who urged her to travel in Tuscany, blames himself, but then so does Mirren's traveling companion (Helena Bonham Carter). The two commiserate upon their long train ride back to England, but they can not forgive themselves for enabling this unsuitable marriage. The British carry blame at all times just as they do black umbrellas. They feel naked without it.

Meanwhile back in Tuscany, Mirren realizes that being a pregnant Italian wife with a lusty young husband isn't all she had imagined it would be. He won't let her go for long walks and nobody important will come to tea. And as an Italian, he feels duty bound to fool around. Still, he loves her and he can hardly wait for the baby. "We shall be brothers," he says.

At this point, the story takes a dark turn that finds Carter and Graves along with his nettlesome sister (Judy Davis) in Italy on a different sort of family business. An Oscar nominee for her role in the 1984 adaptation of Forster's "A Passage to India," Davis is the high point of the film as a repressed and xenophobic spinster, whose hilarious, well-meaning, but finally misguided machinations have a disastrous effect on all concerned. There you jolly well are. The English rush in "Where Angels Fear to Tread."

It's as traditional as brandy and cigars.

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