The period drama heft attributed to the Merchant Ivory team of screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory has always been most closely identified with their triptych of E.M. Forster adaptations — “A Room With a View,” “Howards End” and “Maurice.” And no wonder: acclaim, box office success and shelves of awards will do that for a reputation.
But the tricky novels of American author Henry James were the trio’s other noteworthy source material for costumed sagas. James inspired three of Merchant Ivory’s less celebrated films, starting with the one that ostensibly kicked off their love affair with elegantly detailed re-creations of the sophisticated bygone — 1979’s sumptuous and studious New England-set “The Europeans,” now being re-released in a 2K restoration from Cohen Media Group, which acquired most of the Merchant Ivory library in 2015. (Earlier this year it restored and re-released their 1981 belle epoque drama “Quartet.”)
One of James’ early, simpler transatlantic narratives of juxtaposed manners and psychologies, in the Merchant Ivory gang’s hands it presents as such, something classical and concise in execution, like a well-made watch. The story chronicles a pair of visiting siblings from Europe — crafty, flirtatious Eugenia Young (Lee Remick), a baroness in a crumbling marriage, and her Bohemian younger brother Felix (Tim Woodward) — and the rattling effect they have on their well-off American cousins the Wentworths, a stodgy, pious patriarch (Wesley Addy) and his three adult children, who live outside of Boston in a tranquil suburb.
First to succumb to the interlopers’ charms — specifically Felix’s carefree, romantic air — is the Wentworths’ daughter Gertrude (Lisa Eichhorn), all too ready to push back against the moral constrictions of her upbringing, and the claustrophic expectation that she’s supposed to marry a Unitarian minister (Norman Snow) she finds hopelessly boring. (Eichhorn’s knee-jerk stubbornness is ticklishly pitch perfect, never more so than when her father, agreeing to let the cousins stay in a house on their property, gravely warns Gertrude not to get too excited, to which she dazedly deadpans, “I am already excited.”)
Eugenia, meanwhile, sees opportunity in the wealthy gravitas of another cousin, Robert Acton (Robin Ellis), who is initially suspicious of the Youngs’ motives. When he nonetheless meets Eugenia’s alluring self-possession with more plainly expressive gestures of interest, they only seem to trigger further teasing deflections on her part, including a toying flirtation with Gertrude’s smitten, blushing brother Clifford (Tim Choate). Remick’s swanning portrayal is good fun, a sly mix of the graceful and vulnerable, suggesting a performative worldliness that nicely captures the chasm James observed between the fading magnetism of old Europe and the no-nonsense openness of the New World that Acton represents.
The movie around these forthright figures is modest and mannered, but accomplished with clear intent. There’s an appealing straightforwardness to Jhabvala’s literary faithfulness (especially the inherent comedy in each exchange) and in Ivory’s unadorned handling of the material, the latter perhaps a direct result of his grasping how much was to be enjoyed visually from the autumnal resplendence of Larry Pizer’s outdoor cinematography and the dazzling work of costume designer Judy Moorcroft, who was Oscar-nominated for her character-elucidating, era-specific threads. (What any given scene partners wear, from top to bottom, is like an extra layer of illuminating performance.)
It’s easy to forget how fully the Merchant Ivory folk invigorated the period drama when their ship came in, even as they fell victim after “Howards End” to larger budgets and bigger stars that didn’t necessarily translate to richer storytelling. That was certainly the case with their last James adaptation, 2000’s “The Golden Bowl.” But what’s attractive about revisiting “The Europeans” now is how it’s more indie-flavored, its pleasurable finery and delicate ironies — even the filmic stiltedness — befitting a novel whose lightness of tone James himself recognized when he subtitled it “A Sketch.”
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: Starts Dec. 20, Laemmle Royal, West L.A.