Henry James' early novella "The Europeans" should have inspired a more vivacious and satisfying movie than the adaptation directed by the chronically stodgy James Ivory, from a script by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, that opens today at the Outer Circle.
After all, it's not as if "The Europeans" were impenetrable, heavy James.
Written well before he had settled into his definitive ornate style, the book is a compact, sparkling comedy of manners, in many respects reminiscent of the novels of Jane Austen.
An astute film version might have been modeled after MGM's wonderful production of "Pride and Prejudice," although no one would expect a Metro sort of cast. The company selected by Ivory isn't exactly inept. As a matter of fact, Lee Remick, Robin Ellis, Tim Woodward and Tim Choate seem quite adept and personable in the roles of the baroness, Robert Acton, Felix and Clifford, respectively.
What they seem to lack is a suitably animated and polished playing atmosphere. At best, "The Europeans" is a fleetingly, pretty, witty condensation of James. The settings -- the interiors and grounds of mid-Victorian homes in Massachusetts and New Hampshire -- have a lovely formality and an autumnal glow, and many of the quips and exchanges are too good to ruin, but the movie remains dreadfully slumberous and lackluster.
The text of the novella often cries out for performance. Even the plot, in which three young couples are happily paired off at the conclusion, seems to lend itself to theatrical presentation.
James might have called the story "Our American Cousins." The Europeans are half-American siblings: Eugenia, whose floundering marriage to a minor German nobleman has given her the title Baroness Muenster, and her younger brother Felix, an enormously good-natured dilettante.
Fashionable but financially desperate, Eugenia has journeyed to the United States to visit relatives in suburban Boston -- the sedate, well-to-do, generous Wentworths.
Eugenia's mother was the head-strong half-sister of the estimable Mr. Wentworth (Wesley Addy), apparently a widower with two marriageable daughters of his own, the restless Gertrude (Lisa Eichhorn, less streamlined and appealing than she was in "Yanks") and demure Charlotte (Nancy New), as well as a son, Clifford, who has picked up a distressing fondness for the bottle.
James contrasts the attitudes and manners of the worldly but impecunious guests and their provincial hosts. It's an extremely affectionate, fair-minded contrast, calculated to derive humor from the differences in outlook and behavior without ridiculing or rejecting any of the people affected by this brief social experiment.
Although Eugenia and Felix have embarked on a fortune-hunting visit, we're not encouraged to resent this mercenary motive. They don't really rob their hosts of anything. As a matter of fact, they tend to enrich the provincial atmosphere. Felix is perceived to be a much more appropriate suitor for Gertrude than Brand (Norman Snow), the earnest young Unitarian pastor who keeps pestering her before he realizes that he'd be happier with the devout Charlotte. Felix's suggestion that conversational exposure to a woman of the world such as Eugenia would help straighten out Clifford proves to be right on the money.
In fact, it's only the mercenary mastermind Eugenia who seems to go away from this adventure empty-handed.Her budding affair with Robert Acton, an eligible Bostonian who has traveled widely and shares her cosmopolitan outlook to some extent, is thwarted by their mutual reluctance to transcend certain prides, prejudices and family obligations.The failure of this potential match between superior partners lends a touch of melancholy to an otherwise happy ending.
Nice stuff, and it ought to work on screen, given a decent cast and director. Unfortunately, Ivory is a director who never gets out of emotional neutral. You crave the vivid sort of tastefulness and stylishness that Ernst Lubitsch or William Wyler might have brought to the material.
This listless adaptation of "The Europeans" will probably leave many people with the mistaken impression that it was pointless trying to film Wordy Old James in the first place.