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Review: Proper portraits in Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala's 'The Bostonians'

Review: Proper portraits in Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala's 'The Bostonians'
Vanessa Redgrave in the 1984 film "The Bostonians." (Cohen Media Group)

Editor’s note: A restored version of the 1984 film “The Bostonians” opens Dec. 7 at the Laemmle Royal. The Times originally published this review Dec. 6, 1984.

You may have already heard or read that in “The Bostonians,” Vanessa Redgrave is Olive Chancellor incarnate. And so she seems to be, illuminating the rich, introverted Boston suffragette at the heart of Henry James’ brilliant novel with fine intelligence and quiveringly passionate fervor. You can even look at James’ description of Olive, a woman “who took things so hard,” whose “white skin had a singular look of being drawn tightly across her face,” the tint of whose eyes made one think “of the glitter of green ice” and conjure up Redgrave instantly. (Well, blue ice.)

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But one might also stubbornly point out that Redgrave seems to have shaped most of her major roles — Isadora Duncan, Lillian Hellman’s Julia, even Guinevere — so irrevocably that it’s useless to try to remember these women as we first saw or imagined them; they are forever Redgrave.

All of which simply goes to say that her Olive Chancellor is a great and unforgettable portrait, and that to a degree, its rightness pulls the film out of balance.

In this sumptuous and richly correct-looking production, adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala for her longtime collaborators, director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant, we watch as Olive is drawn to a young lecture-hall spellbinder, the flowingly red-haired Verena Tarrant (newcomer Madeleine Potter), who speaks ringingly on the emancipation of women in post-Civil War Boston in 1875.

Watching Verena at the same salon is Olive’s penniless Mississippi cousin Basil Ransome (Christopher Reeve), currently practicing law in New York. Both will be drawn to her, with utterly opposite motives. Ransome, with nothing but contempt for the rights of women, would be happy to sweep this ringleted young thing off her feet. Olive sees her as a prophetess of the new order, given proper coaching.

Olive gets there first, taking the young, apparently malleable girl under her wing, tutoring her, even bringing her to live with her. To accomplish this, all that’s required is a generous check to Verena’s faith-healing charlatan father (Wesley Addy, in a slyly comic performance). And with the full force of Olive’s intellect and care focused upon her, Verena blooms, swaying even the dubious to their cause, surpassing even Olive’s dreams for her. Or she should seem to.

In a film full of superior performances — Linda Hunt as the astringent non-feminist Dr. Prance, Jessica Tandy as the lifelong libertarian Miss Birdseye, Nancy Marchand as the ultimate pragmatist Mrs. Burrage — the casting of Potter becomes an ongoing irritant. Together, Verena and Olive Chancellor should be a violin and a cello, or (as a friend insists) a young Katharine Hepburn and Vanessa Redgrave. Redgrave and Potter are a cello and a penny whistle. To watch Redgrave, with her splendid voice and that strong, controlled body, say, “What power, what power, Miss Tarrant,” is to worry that the woman has lost her judgment entirely.

She certainly loses her heart, and the film becomes a battle between the cousins for possession of Verena, whom Olive has made swear never to marry. Since Reeve (in a beautifully drawn performance is an overpoweringly romantic figure, and since he means such dire mischief, it is a terrible duel.

Christopher Reeve and Madeleine Potter in "The Bostonians."
Christopher Reeve and Madeleine Potter in "The Bostonians." (Cohen Media Group)

The filmmakers must, necessarily, make the novel’s pulsating undertone explicit. In Henry James, writing some 100 years ago, Olive’s consuming attraction would probably have never become overt. She might have lived her life joyously and chastely as the keeper of Verena’s sacred flame. Things are put a good deal more strongly in the film, although they have not vulgarized but only underscored James’ subtext. What is changed is Olive’s situation at the very close: These stringently non-Hollywood filmmakers have suggested a cheerful, almost-Hollywood uptilt for her life. Read James if you want the true, famous irony of the close.

“The Bostonians” doesn’t flow; Ivory does not so much build as stack confrontation upon confrontation. His lapses, beyond the choice of Potter and Wallace Shawn’s insistent quaintness, are matters such as Richard Robbins’ music. Robbins believes we need brisk military drum rattles behind Reeve to remember both the Civil War and the current battle in progress.

None of the rest of the production feels so overstated (both Leo Austin’s production design and the costumes of Jenny Beavan and John Bright are particularly apt and inventive), and James’ story is so fascinating and Redgrave so urgently fine that you can lose sight of these lapses and have an eminently satisfying time.

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‘The Bostonians’

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes

Playing: Starts Friday, Laemmle Royal Theatre, West L.A.

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