Friday, September 4, 2015

Movie Review - Where Angels Fear to Tread

Where Angels Fear to Tread
Based on the book by E.M. Forster
Starring: Rupert Graves, Helena Bonham Carter, Judy Davis, Giovanni Guidelli, Helen Mirren, Barbara Jefford, and Sophie Kullmann
Release Date: June 21st, 1991
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Widow Lilia in a flurry of goodbyes flees her in-laws for the romance of Italy. There her and her charge, Charlotte Abbot, enjoy the sights, sounds, and especially the people. It's the people that is worrisome. Or one person to be precise. One person who Lilia met at her hotel in Monteriano whom she is going to marry. Of course she may have embellished Gino to her in-laws back in England. He has no title, and is the dandy son of a dentist. Also Philip's journey to prevent the marriage is hopeless, as they married the second they realized that an emissary from England was on the way. Lilia wants to finally be free of the constraints that she has lived under for so many years, little realizing that she is changing one prison for another. Philip returns to England with Charlotte in tow, and Lilia learns to live with her mistake. Gino wanted her money, not an independent English wife. She is stifled by him and slowly loses her will to fight and dies in childbirth. Back in England the Herritons decide that they will inform Lilia's daughter Irma about Lilia's death but not about her marriage or her child. Yet Gino doesn't wish Irma to be ignorant and soon an inconvenient postcard arrives and the young child isn't able to keep silent about her new brother and father. Realizing something needs to be done Lilia's brother and sister-in-law, Philip and Harriet, head to Monteriano to buy the child off Gino so that Irma will have her little brother. They surprisingly run into Charlotte Abbot, who claims to be there as spy for their family, not traitor. But what might have looked like an easy mission turns complicated when dealing with the Italian mentality and love.

I find it interesting in looking up other reviews of this movie how it was criticized for it's lack of depth and exploration of social themes that Forster was known for. Yes, Forster was known for this, but for his later work. He struggled to try to incorporate them into his first novel and failed miserably. Only Ebert was wise and educated enough to point out the flaw in the source material verses the film. Coming from just reading the book I see the film not in comparison to other Forster adaptations but in comparison to the book. What this movie was able to do is grasp what Forster was trying and failed to do with his book. The film is a tour de force comedy of manners satirizing societal values. It's an interesting conceit. Because it's like taking the most staid of Sunday night television viewing from PBS and then filtering it through the lens of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Despite the death and despair, there is never a time when the film takes itself too seriously. The entire thing is done with a nudge and a wink, wherein we, the audience, are part of the joke. We are there to laugh at and make fun of the drawing room foibles of the characters and the petty lives these people live wherein an inlaid box that was "lent" not "given" is more important than anything else. The fact that the cast is comprised of the same actors that appear in the work they are satirizing, well, that's just the cherry on top of the sundae.

The movie is able to effect these changes from a lackluster book to a fun movie by the simple expedient of streamlining the story and adding a little movie magic. The movie magic is that instead of showing the deplorable and unseemly side of Monteriano that Forster focused on, everything has been covered in pixie dust. Lilia's house isn't a ramshackle affair, it's actually quite nice. The town is picturesque. We see the world through a cinematic haze that makes everything that much nicer. Also by the magic of cinema, the language barrier is whisked away. Instead of having laborious misunderstandings everyone seems to magically know what everyone else means. Sure it's a little unrealistic, especially in the case of the ignorant Lilia, but it's expedient and let's the story focus on what is important and not have a stumbling block. Also Gino hardly being around doesn't hurt the film in the least due to his horrific casting, but that falls under another category all together. The one thing that did mystify me though was that the film underused Helena Bonham Carter. Charlotte Abbot is a rather important character and almost all of her storyline was pushed aside in favor of showcasing the foibles of the Herritons. As for the subplot of Philip falling in love with her, it was only hinted at in two scenes. While this does work in the film's favor, I have to wonder why she even took the role.

Despite how much I liked this movie I can't say it was without flaws. What worried me the most at first was the Helen Mirren factor. Unlike the rest of the known world, I greatly dislike Helen Mirren. The only movie I liked her in was The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, because she was a disembodied voice, and I tolerated her in Gosford Park because there were enough fabulous actors to balance her deficet. As for that atrocious Elizabeth I miniseries, NEVER mention that to me ever again. Of course my hatred of her was balanced by the fact she was playing Lilia and would therefore shuffle off this mortal coil pretty fast. So while I can't stand Helen Mirren, Helen Mirren doomed to die was acceptable to me. But her casting had more issues then just my dislike of her. She was too old for Lilia in my mind. In the book she is about 35, but Helen Mirren was 45 when she made this movie. Of course this makes the likelihood of her dying in childbirth more likely, but how likely was it that she'd get pregnant in the first place? Lilia is supposed to be believable to get with child AND be an older woman, but she has freakin' grey hair here! NOT the blond Gino boasts about. It's pushing credulity. And yet this is not the worst casting. Ebert nailed it when he said of Giovanni Guidelli who played Gino that he "never seems like a real character and is sometimes dangerously close to being a comic Italian." I couldn't have said it better myself! Gino is almost a pretty boy gangster who actually isn't that pretty and had more than a passing similarity to Lucky Luciano from Boardwalk Empire. If it wasn't for his character being minimized he might just have ruined the movie.

But above all there is one actress who raised this film to new heights. Who knew just how to deliver her lines and knew when a pause or a look would be better than something more dramatic and showy, and this talent is Judy Davis. While this film was made just at the beginning of her ascendancy to independent film darling, the epoch of The Ref being three years in the future, she is the star here. The way she keeps harping on about her lent inlaid box, the way she won't share a conveyance with an overweight woman who turns out to be a famous opera star, her trying to shush the excited audience at the opera, every line, every look, every interaction with her fellow cast shows that she was born to play this role. More than anyone else she understands the humor, though dark, that the film is trying to bring forth from the source material. She "gets" the film and takes the character of Harriet that is basically a catalyst in the book and makes her fully three dimensional and so wonderful that you are counting the minutes until she returns to the screen. The one scene I would highlight above all others is when Harriet and Philip have finally gotten the carriage to Monteriano and she just lays into him about his duty and how things are going to play out. Her exasperation is palpable. The way she sighs and glowers are too perfect, but what makes the scene perfection is how during the entire scene she is still worrying at her eye that got some smut in it back at the train station. Her belaboring of that injury perfectly captures he comedic capabilities and why you should watch this film just for her.

If there is one thing though I would change about this movie, it would be the score. Most people don't realize the importance of music in a movie, it shouldn't overwhelm, it should compliment. It helps aid in the emotional impact of the story. Rachel Portman's score did not aid this movie. Yes, at times it was suitably dramatic and had the right vibe, but sometimes it would try to force the situation. It would try to make Gino more menacing, so cue the menacing music. At times like this it felt like she was trying to do the evil music from old silent films that would accompany a moustache stroking villain tying the damsel to the train tracks. She could do grand panoramic music that is the standard miniseries fare but everything else was beyond her grasp. Even more perplexing to me is that I have loved some of her previous scores, for example Jim Henson's The Storyteller, that was fantastic. So one, being me, wonders where did she go wrong? Was it the director? Because he seemed to understand what he was doing all along and then just, what? Decided that he wanted to make the movie something more than it is and tried to fix it with the music? Seriously, that is never going to work. Music reflects the movie and vice versa, you can't try to change one with the other. Accept the brilliance that you have and enjoy. Because this is a movie to be enjoyed.


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