“THE EUROPEANS” (1979) Review

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“THE EUROPEANS” (1979) Review

Merchant-Ivory Productions first began as a production company in 1961. Formed by Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory, the film company produced and released a series of movies, usually written by German-born screenwriter,
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. A few years before Merchant-Ivory entered its artistic heyday of the 1980s and 90s, it released“THE EUROPEANS”, an adaptation of Henry James’ 1878 short novel, “The Europeans: A Sketch”

Set in antebellum Massachusetts in either 1849 or 1850, “THE EUROPEANS” begins with the arrival of an European visitor named Felix Young, who is in the United States to visit his American cousins, the Wentworths. The first member of the family he meets is Gertrude Wentworth, who is shirking attendance at church. Felix eventually meets the rest of the family – patriarch Mr. Wentworth, Charlotte and the youngest member, Clifford. He also meets Mr. Brand, the local minister who hopes to marry Gertrude. Felix’s sister, Eugenia Munster, arrives the next day. Not only does she meet the Wentworths and Mr. Brand; but also Robert and Lizzie Acton, a brother and sister who happen to be neighbors of the Wentworths.

It is apparent that Gertrude has not only become enamored of her European cousins’ lifestyle, but especially Felix. Meanwhile, Eugenia and Robert have grown increasingly attracted to one another. However, Eugenia is reluctant to sign the divorce papers that would signal the end of her morganatic marriage to Prince Adolf of Silberstadt-Schreckenstein, whose family wants the marriage to end for political reasons. Despite Eugenia’s marriage and her obvious dislike of her cousins’ Unitarian society, she managed to become attracted to Robert . . . much to his sister Lizzie’s distaste. As for Felix, he and Gertrude become romantically involved. Unfortunately, the Wentworths are not thrilled by this new development between the distant cousins. All of them expect Gertrude to marry Mr. Brand – including Charlotte, who happens to be in love with the minister. The story ends up as a clash between 19th century European and American sensibilities and culture; and also a series of love stories or subplots that feature family disapproval, procrastination and bad communication.

I might as well say it. “THE EUROPEANS” is not exactly an example of the Merchant Ivory team at its cinematic best. Mind you, the movie is visually lovely. And thanks to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay, it does featuring some amusing wit. But there is something archaic, almost static about this film. I get the feeling that Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory were either overwhelmed by the film’s period setting. Or else they, along with Prawer Jhabvala, were determined to indulged in some cliched view of stoic 19th century New England. There were times when “THE EUROPEANS” struck me as a bit too slow, almost bloodless. This pristine, yet chilly style even permeated the movie’s production designs managed by Joyce Herlihy.

But there were plenty of aspects of “THE EUROPEANS” that I enjoyed. Cinematographer Larry Pizer beautifully captured the New England locations of the film. Although Henry James’ story was set during the spring, Merchant, Ivory and their production team were so dazzled by the region’s beauty during the fall season that they decided to change the story’s period. I was also very impressed by Judy Moorcroft’s costume designs. Not only did I find her costumes beautiful, but I was also impressed by Moorcroft’s successful attempt to make her costumes a near re-creation of 1849-1850 fashions in Western countries. A good example is the following outfit worn by Lee Remick:

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Despite my complaints about the movie’s staid adaptation of James’ novel, I must admit that I still managed to enjoy the story. What I found surprising about the movie’s plot is that the so-called battle between the cultures did not result in any real winners. Did American or European culture win? My answer is “neither”. But individuals won, especially three particular characters – Felix Young and the two Wentworth sisters, Gertrude and Charlotte. The romance . . . or flirtation between Eugenia Munster and Robert Acton proved to be a bit more complicated. Despite their flirtations and battles of will, I came away with the particular feeling that neither really triumphed in the end. Yet at the same time, I found it equally hard to believe that either of them had suffered a sound defeat. The Eugenia-Robert romance proved to be one of the most complex literary relationships I have ever encountered. Most of the performances in “THE EUROPEANS” proved to be solid, especially those from Tim Woodward, Lisa Eichhorn, Robert Addy and Norman Snow. But the two performances that really impressed me came from Lee Remick and Robin Ellis, who did a marvelous job in conveying the complicated Eugenia-Robert romance.

As I had stated earlier, I would never consider “THE EUROPEANS” as one of the best movies produced by the Merchant-Ivory team. I found it a bit slow and at times, bloodless. It lacked the earthy humor and drama of some of the production company’s bigger successes in the 1980s and 90s. On the other hand, I must admit that it looked beautiful and still featured some complex characterizations, thanks to a solid cast led by Lee Remick and Robin Ellis. With patience, one could overlook the movie’s flaws and still manage to enjoy Henry James’ tale.

“TAKEN AT THE FLOOD” (2006) Review

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If you have never read Agatha Christie’s novel, “Taken at the Flood” or seen the 2006 television adaptation, I suggest you read no futher. This review contains major spoilers. 

“TAKEN AT THE FLOOD” (2006) Review

Written in 1948, Agatha Christie’s novel called “Taken at the Flood” told the story of the Cloade family in post-war Britian, who depends upon the good will of their cousin-in-law, Rosaleen Hunter Cloade; after her husband and their cousin is killed in an air raid during World War II. When her controlling brother, David, refuses to share Gordon Cloade’s fortunate, the family enlists Poirot’s help to prove that Rosaleen’s missing first husband, Robert Underhay, might not be dead. Although the novel received mixed reviews when it was first published, it now seems highly regarded by many of Christie’s modern day fans.

Nearly sixty years later, screenwriter Guy Andrews adapted the novel for ITV’s “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” series. However, Andrews set the novel in the 1930s, which has been the traditional setting for the novel. In doing so, Andrews changed the aspect of Gordon Cloade’s death, making it an act of murder, instead of a wartime casualty. This change also removed the ennui that a few of the characters experienced in a post-war world. Other changes were made in the screenplay. The character of Rosaleen Cloade became a morphine addict. She also survived a morphine overdose. Also, Andrews changed the fate of the story’s leading female character, Lynn Marchmont.

I really wish that Andrews and director Andy Wilson had maintained the novel’s original setting of post-war Britain. It would not have hurt if “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” broke away from its usual mid-1930s setting to air a story set ten years later. Most adaptations of the Jane Marple novels have always been set in the 1950s. Yet, both adaptations of Christie’s novel, “A Murder Is Announced” managed to break away from that decade and set the story in its proper setting – mid-to-late 1940s. By changing the setting and making Gordon Cloade a murder victim, Andrews and Wilson transformed the original novel’s theme, which centered on how some of the characters took advantage of a certain situation to “make their own fortune”. This theme brings to mind the story’s title and its origin – a quotation from William Shakespeare’s novel,“Julius Caesar”. The movie also established a friendship between the Cloade family and Hercule Poirot. And if I must be honest, I find this friendship implausible. The Cloade family struck me as arrogant, greedy, corrupt, and a slightly poisonous bunch. I find it hard to believe Poirot would befriend any member of that family – with the exception of the leading female character, Lynn Marchmont.

Despite my misgivings over the movie’s setting and some of the changes, I must admit that most of it was very intriguing. Despite being an unpleasant bunch, the Cloade family provided the story with some very colorful characters that include a telephone harasser and a drug addict. Lynn is engaged to her cousin Rowley Cloade and it is clear that she does not harbor any real love for him . . . even before meeting Rosaleen’s brother David. And instead of being a war veteran and former member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service, Lynn is merely a returnee from one of Britain’s colonies in Africa Actress Amanda Douge portrayed Lynn and she portrayed the character with great warmth and style.

But David Hunter proved to be the most interesting and well-written character in the story. I would go further and state that he might be one of the most complex characters that Christie ever created. David is blunt to a fault, arrogant and has no problems in expressing his dislike and contempt toward the Cloades. He does not make an effort to hide some of his less than pleasant personality traits and is a borderline bully, who is controlling toward his sister. The character provided actor Elliot Cowan with probably one of his better roles . . . and he made the most of it with great skill. When David Hunter and Lynn Marchmont become romantically involved, Cowan ended up creating great screen chemistry with Douge.

The mystery over Rosaleen Cloade’s marital state proved to be rather engaging. One is inclined to believe both Rosaleen and David that she was widowed before marrying Gordon Cloade. But when a man named Enoch Arden appeared and claimed that Rosaleen’s first husband is still alive, the audience’s belief in the Hunter siblings is shaken. But when Arden is killed violently, David becomes suspect Number One with the police and Poirot.

I have already commented upon Elliot Cowan and Amanda Douge’s performances in “TAKEN AT THE FLOOD”. I was also impressed by Patrick Baladi’s portrayal of Lynn’s obsessive fiancé, Rowley Cloade. Eva Birthistle was subtle and unforgettable as David’s nervous and very reserved sister, the wealthy widow Rosaleen Cloade. And veteran performers such as Jenny Agutter, Penny Downie, Tim Pigott-Smith, Pip Torrens and a deliciously over-the-top Celia Imrie provided great support. I also have to commend David Suchet, who gave his usual first-rate performance as detective Hercule Poirot. If there is one virtue that “TAKEN AT THE FLOOD” possessed, it was a first-rate cast.

“TAKEN AT THE FLOOD” could have been a first-rate movie. But I believe that both Andrews and Wilson dropped the ball in the movie’s last thirty minutes. Their biggest mistake was adhering closely to Christie’s original novel. I am aware of some of the changes they made. I had no problem with some of the changes. Other changes really turned me off. But despite these changes, they managed to somewhat remain faithful to the novel. As as far as I am concerned, this was a major mistake.

In the novel, David Hunter ended up murdering Rosaleen Cloade by giving her a drug overdose. Poirot managed to reveal that Rosaleen was merely his sister’s former housemaid, who became an accomplice in a scam to assume control of the Cloade fortune. Andrews’ script changed this by allowing Rosaleen to attempt suicide and survive. Instead, they had David guilty of murdering his sister and brother-in-law in a house bombing featured at the beginning of the movie. Worse, Poirot claimed that David had deliberately impregnated the false Rosaleen and forced her to get an abortion in order to control her. Poirot also hinted he was behind Rosaleen’s suicide attempt. How he came to this conclusion is beyond me. In other words, Andrews’ script transformed David Hunter from a swindler and killer of his accomplice to an out-and-out monster. In the end, he was hanged for his crimes.

Both Christie and Andrews’ handling of the Cloade family proved to be even more incredible. Mrs. Frances Cloade had recruited a relation to call himself as Enoch Arden and claim that Robert Underhay was still alive. Another member of the Cloade family recruited a Major Porter to lie on the stand and make the same claim. Later, Major Porter committed suicide.

The murder of Enoch Arden proved to be an accident. In other words, Rowley Cloade discovered that Arden was the relation of his cousin-in-law, Mrs. Frances Cloade, reacted with anger and attacked the man. Rowley’s attack led to Arden’s fall and his death. Then Rowley proceeded to frame David by deliberately smashing in Arden’s head in order to make it resemble murder. Upon Lynn’s revelation that she was in love with David Hunter, Rowley lost his temper and tried to strangle her. Poirot and a police officer managed to stop him. One, Rowley was guilty of manslaughter, when he caused Enoch Arden’s death. Two, he was guilty of interfering with a police investigation, when he tried to frame David for murder. And three, he was also guilty of assault and attempted murder of Lynn Marchmont. Once Poirot discovered that Arden’s death was an accident caused by Rowley, he immediately dismissed the incident and focused his attention on David Hunter’s crimes.

In the end, Rowley was never arrested, prosecuted or punished for his crimes. Frances Cloade was never questioned by the police for producing the phony Enoch Arden in an attempt to commit fraud. And the member of the Cloade family who had recruited Major Porter was never prosecuted for attempting to perpetrate a fraud against the courts. The only positive change that Andrews made to Christie’s novel was allowing Lynn’s rejection of Rowley to remain permanent. In the novel, Lynn decided that she loved Rowley after all, following his attempt to kill her. She found his violent behavior appealing and romantic.

I sometimes wonder if Christie became aware of her negative portrayal of the upper-class Cloades, while writing “Taken at the Flood”, and became determined to maintain the social status quo in the novel. And she achieved this by ensuring that the lower-class David Hunter proved to be the real criminal and no member of the Cloade family end up arrested or prosecuted for their crimes. In other words, Christie allowed her conservative sensibilities to really get the best of her. Aside from the permanent separation between Lynn and Rowley, Andrews and Wilson embraced Christie’s conservatism to the extreme. And it left a bitter taste in my mouth. No wonder “TAKEN AT THE FLOOD” proved to be one of the most disappointing Christie stories I have ever come across.