Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Blu-ray/DVD/digital release of the 1984 Merchant/Ivory classic, THE BOSTONIANS

One of the more profound if unsettling experiences I've had watching a movie of late came as I viewed the new 4K restoration of the James Ivory/Ismail Merchant film, THE BOSTONIANS, adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from the Henry James novel. Both of these feelings arose while watching and hearing fledgling actress Madeleine Potter (shown below: this was but her second role, and she is extraordinary) rouse an audience to high fervor regarding the need and reason for equality for women. (The film takes place in 1875 in both Massachusetts and New York.)

The power of those words and of their delivery by Ms Potter are fierce, but TrustMovies unsettled feeling came from the unpleasant realization of how very far we are today from anything remotely approaching equality between the sexes. When this film was first released theatrically in 1984, America seemed to be able to rest easy, still basking in the triumph of Roe vs Wade and in how far it seemed that women had come over the past couple of decades. Well, never rest easy, right?

In fact, when I initially saw the film back in the mid 1980s, I found it less than compelling, perhaps for the very reason that it seemed somehow out of date. Viewing it now, in the era of Donald Trump, and the South's rise again in everything from bigotry and white supremacy to the more and more stringent anti-abortion "laws," it could not be more timely or important.

Nor, in fact, could The Bostonians' other theme of that ever-present struggle in women between the need for love and security and the competing desire for independence and power over one's body, spirit and life. That struggle is shown in fine form here via Verena Tarrant (the Potter character) and her attraction to Basil Ransome, the handsome Southern gentleman, played very well by the late Christopher Reeve (above), in one of his better non-Superman roles.

The attraction is plain and clear for both characters, but it takes most of the movie before Verena can understand her own needs well enough to act on them. And that is the great strength and finally the unfortunate weakness of the film. The second half begins to seem a bit repetitive and so loses some of its steam -- before gaining most of this back in the final few minutes.

The other main attraction of The Bostonians is the great Vanessa Redgrave, above, in one of her (god, there are so many) finest roles, as Basil's northern cousin, Olive Chancellor, the stern, middle-aged woman who saw and nurtured Verena first, and has fallen hopelessly in love with her, only to see the girl slowly being pried from her arms by her own cousin. Of course, Olive can have no recognition of this forbidden love, given the time and place, not to mention her own strictured character, so she must pretend that what is going on here is everything but what we know it is.

The settings -- indoors and out -- are by turns verdantly lovely and full of elegant, Victorian too-muchness, while the terrific supporting cast includes a bevy of lip-smackingly good performers: Jessica Tandy, Wesley Addy, Nancy Marchand, Linda Hunt (below, left, and delightful indeed), and Wallace Shawn.

There is so much to savor in this wonderful new restoration that I hope you'll see the film (or see it again, as the case may be). God knows, it holds up. And then some. From the Cohen Film Collection and running 122 minutes, The Bostonians hit the street on Blu-ray, DVD and digital last month and is available now -- for purchase or rental.

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