In the movies, a Merchant Ivory production is a brand-name product. Buy it and you know what you're getting. Together the producer, Ismail Merchant, and his directing partner, James Ivory, have made movie versions of "The Bostonians," "The Europeans," "Maurice" and "A Room With a View." Tasteful literary adaptations -- Morocco-bound movies -- are their stock in trade. And their latest effort, "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge," with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, certainly offers no surprises. It slips neatly onto the shelf with their other filmed classics.
"Mr. Bridge" and "Mrs. Bridge," the Evan S. Connell novels on which the film is based, are interlinked constellations of pearly vignettes. They give us, in brief poised episodes floating in the chronology of a Kansas City couple's life, the crystallized essence of a certain kind of tragic American averageness.
The books are works of almost pure sensibility; they have little narrative drive, relying instead on details of feeling and observation. What Connell was trying to create is a case study of the pathology of families. The setting is the WASP upper-middle class during the '30s and '40s, the country club set of lawyers, doctors and businessmen and their homemaking wives.
The movie reproduces Connell's precise, clinical style about as closely as a filmed version could; it's rigorously faithful in both tone and texture. But in this case -- and in others too -- they've staged the book without entering into it deeply or imaginatively. It's respectful but not particularly vigorous or enlightening.
The film comes with a built-in problem. Its subject is emotional repression, and the challenge is to make a film about a soul-deep conservatism that doesn't itself suffer from the excess caution and lack of dynamism that its characters do. However, it's not a challenge that is met.
Newman and Woodward, though, bring their characters to full life even if their director cannot create a fitting context for them. Thin-lipped and ramrod stiff, Walter Bridge is his family's dominating force, and the movie's as well. Newman presents him as a kind of nightmare incarnation of Harry S. Truman, with steel wire-rims and sternly parted steel-gray hair. He's a man who allows himself no expressions of poetry or soul, no emotional flourishes, no demonstrations of love. Early on, he's encouraged to play Romeo to his daughter Ruth's Juliet for a reading of the balcony scene, and the words come out stilted, lifeless, without music. He's an attorney and a pedant, and by pure force of will transforms Shakespeare's great romantic speech into a law brief.
Aloof, humorless, coolly tyrannical, Mr. Bridge is an American archetype -- the distant, unloving, breadwinning father -- the killer patriarch. Practicality is his religion, and he cuts through his days with the brisk, unsentimental efficiency of a surgeon. The character is without the slightest trace of warmth or charm, and there's a kind of dogged greatness in the way the actor has bled himself dry. And he brings a quality of comic perversity to Mr. Bridge's stubbornness, as if he were tickled by his own ability to cancel out all his human qualities.
Is it an enjoyable performance? Not really. It's a joyless kind of feat. There's more in it for the actor than for the audience -- like a trapeze artist's quadruple somersault done in pitch darkness.
The effect of Mr. Bridge's enduring chilliness on his wife and three children is, of course, killing. He's a soft-spoken brute, and in this arctic climate, his wife struggles for some sense of herself, taking art lessons, adopting vaguely "artistic" and, to her husband's way of thinking, silly women friends. Mostly, though, she chatters away, making polite, generally inane conversation, keeping up her frantically chipper front. India Bridge is a sad, possibly absurd figure, but because of Woodward's urgent plaintiveness, never a pathetic one. An overcompensating, cheerful ditz, Mrs. Bridge never stops trying to vault the emotional chasm between herself and the other people in her life, but her efforts are often hapless or strenuously inappropriate or, as when she sits in the bathroom watching her son shave, heartbreaking. The actress does deep, impressive work.
It's Woodward's ability to color Mrs. Bridge's cheerful vulnerability with desperation that carries the character into the realm of emotional victimization. The children are casualties too. Kyra Sedgwick's earthy Ruth sets off libido bombs in her father that short-circuit his control panel. Her younger sister, Carolyn (the solidly unremarkable Margaret Welsh), is less overtly rebellious but marries impetuously and, at least partly, to anger and disappoint her father. Of all of them, though, the straight-arrow Douglas (Robert Sean Leonard) seems the most damaged and the most mysterious. One of two fates seems to await him -- either he'll go mad or, worse, he'll follow in his father's footsteps and become a lawyer too. (He chooses the latter.)
The Connell novels are not coffee-table books -- they're icy and, in their understated way, savagely cutting. What's missing from the film is that damped-down savagery. Ivory and his screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, are right not to try to crack Connell's glassy surface, but they give us only glimpses of the violence underneath. It's hinted at, in Woodward and in Newman, but hinted at only.
Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, at area theaters, is rated PG-13.