"International Velvet" is narrated for the most part by a character purporting to be the adult embodiment of Velvet Brown, the adolescent heroine of "National Velvet", an Enid Bagnold novel memorably filmed by MGM in 1944. As everyone knows, 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor became a juvenile star in the role of Velvet, an impassioned little girl who rode her beloved horse, The Pie, to victory in the Grand National.
Taylor wisely rejected the offer to "update" her original role in "International Velvet", a generation-after sequel fabricated by Bryan Forbes for the modern MGM. The role was eventually entrusted to Mrs. Forbes, actress Nanette Newman, and it's just as well that the abomination was kept in the family. Forbes has been presumptuous enough to transform Velvet into a ninny, a remorseless repository of platitudes who would have appalled the Brown family, especially Mrs. Brown, a tower of maternal strength and sexual pride if there ever was one.
The movie opens on a note of photographically lush, sentimentally vacuous reverie the turns out to be a permanent state of mindlessness. Discovered by aerial camera strolling on the beach, middle-aged Velvet shares the first of many voice-over Deep Thoughts - "Love makes all the choices for us" - and goes on to explain how she became a foster mother. On the evidence, she proves a disgrace, but Forbes insists on pretending she's a sensitive dear and refuses to shut her up - another way of saying that he can't shut himself up. The soundtrack reels from such ruminations as "Women are supposed to have instincts. I didn't have many. Maybe only mothers have them."
The premise is that Velvet, a childless divorcee living with a cheerfully pompous, glib writer played by Christopher Plummer, must take in her tragically orphaned. Americanized niece Sarah, played by Tatum O'Neal. Initially hostile and standoffish, Sarah is supposed to thaw out as she adjusts to life with inane, self-absorbed Auntie and cultivates a horsy passion of her own - the ambition to excel as a show rider and win a place on the British Olympic Equestrian Team.
Sarah's hostility seems justified by the beastly behavior she must endure upon arrival. On her first day at school classmates tease her by opening a small box with a severed finger inside and boasting that it was taken off a dead G.I. in Vietnam. Hearing of this shock, Aunt Velvet sagely remarks, "I'm sure it wasn't a real dead finger, dear. You know, it's never so bad on the second day." Is this woman for real? Is Forbes trying to foster hatred of his own countrymen in every American who attends the movie?
You keep hoping that all these nasty preliminaries will somehow be transcended and that the picture will finally begin following the example of "National Velvet" by depicting a young person's obession with horses. Ultimately, it becomes apparent that Forbes' miscalculations grow out of a fundamental inability or disinclination to identify with Sarah. Unlike Bagnold or Clarence Brown, who directed "National Velvet," Forbes shows no interest in the girl's imaginative world.
The recurrence of vicious of hysterical episodes - the "dead" finger, Sarah fleeing on horseback from young hooligans who end up burning to death in the wreck of their car, Velvet threatening Sarah because she ran away from "home", the shooting of a panic-stricken horse during a transatlantic plane flight - may be understandable if one thinks of them as avoidance mechanisms invented out of desperation. Whenever Forbes should be getting down to basic children's story business - Sarah and her love of horses - he conceals his shortcomings by trumping up another irrelevant crisis.
As a consequence, certain obligatory scenes appear to be missing, notably those accounting for the sudden reconciliation between Sarah and Velvet and Sarah's interest in equestrian competition. Forbes may be detected losing the grip on his own slippery continuity. Sarah's exacting equestrian coach, played by Anthony Hopkins, chides the girl for riding like a cowboy when it appears she's been living - and presumably riding - in England for years. During one sequence Forbes blithely inserts the Hopkins character as the narrator. Was Mrs. Forbes indisposed that day?
Despite all this confusion and ineptitude, Forbes may bail himself out with forgetful audiences by creating a measure of suspense around the climactic Olympic equestrian events, which are also very prettily, though not very informatively, photographed. It seems presumptuous of a film-maker who shortchanges the necessary dramatic preparation to expect rooting interest when he finally blunders down the stretch, but many customers do have shorter memories than the filmmakers themselves.
Tatum O'Neal is not an engaging presence as Sarah, but the material is never designed to focus on her needs or feelings. At the beginning the title seems a misnomer, because one absumes the story will deal with a new young horsewoman, whose name isn't Velvet. Forbes covers himself rather cleverly on this subterfuge by pretending that the sporting press nicknames Sarah "International Velvet". However, he can't finesse the basic neglect of Sarah's character in order to emphasize Velvet's pedestrian anxieties.
Despite all of Velvet's earnest prattle, this movie lacks an essential source of strength available to "National Velvet" - the viewpoint of a woman novelist. Forbes enjoys fussing about Velvet's non-existent problems, but he's a patronizing interpreter of the Feminine Angel, fascinated mainly by the jingle of his own dialogue. At one point he even praises his stuff under cover of a casual remark by the Hopkins character about "my subtle wit and whimsical humor."
What a travesty of progress! "National Velvet" matter-of-factly depicted Velvet's mother as the brains and inspiration of her family. "International Velvet" asks us to rejoice in the prospect of Sarah turning into a priggish limitation of her insufferable foster mum. We're supposed to be touched to the quick when Sarah president Velvet with her Olympic medal. It would have been more satisfying to see her present Auntie with a little box with a dead finger inside.