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THE BOSTONIANS

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, June 14, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: Merchant Ivory Productions was a notable movie company in the 1980s having produced such Oscar winners as ‘Howards End’ and ‘A Room with a View,’ among many others. Another film in its canon, which seems to have been forgotten, is this one, now getting new life with a Blu-ray upgrade from the boutique label the Cohen Media Group. My review was published in the Deseret News on March 15, 1985. (And by the way, Vanessa Redgrave did receive an Oscar nomination for her performance here.)

So, the question is, does Vanessa Redgrave deserve an Oscar nomination for her role in “The Bostonians”? And the answer is yes, most assuredly.

But then, so does the entire cast here, including Christopher Reeve in what has to be his single best onscreen performance yet.

Based on the Henry James novel, “The Bostonians” is about a psychological tug-of-war as Olive Chancellor (Redgrave), a repressed middle-aged matron, vies with her distant cousin Basil Ransome (Reeve), a male chauvinist of the first order, for the affection of Verena Tarrant (Madeleine Potter), a young woman who has become a vibrant symbol of the women’s movement in 1875, struggling to get women to vote.

As the opening scenes set it up, Verena is an up-and-coming representative/spokesperson of the movement but her presentation is as much a sideshow as anything else, with her charlatan father performing spiritual tricks first.

Olive sees in Verena something special, however, and becomes her Svengali, taking Verena into her home and convincing her she should commit her life to the movement, even urging her to never marry.

     

Vanessa Redgrave, left, Madeleine Potter, 'The Bostonians'

Basil is also taken with Verena, however, though for decidedly different reasons. He is a struggling young lawyer in New York, trying to get published some of his outdated views, formed largely through his upbringing as an old-fashioned Southern gentleman. His politics are completely the opposite of hers and Verena looks upon him as a challenge to convert.

Olive, however, sees Basil as “the enemy.” She doesn’t seem to care for men at all but Basil in particular is a threat — and not just to the movement. As a result, Basil and Verena meet only surreptitiously at first, then more openly. Soon, Verena is in love with him, despite their disparate views, and Olive fears losing her forever.

“The Bostonians” is a low-key, intelligent look at people and obsessions, wrapped up in an interesting view of the women’s movement, which makes it an extremely timely film — more so than most movies that are set in our modern day and age.

In that regard, however, the women’s cause is not always viewed favorably, and the ending of this film may disturb some. But there are more levels being explored here than lie on the surface, and they are perhaps best summed up with a brief speech by a supporting character late in the film, as she makes note of deeper-running human motivations.

Linda Hunt, the Oscar-winning actress who played Billy Kwan in “The Year of Living Dangerously,” has that role, and she is excellent as a doctor who seems rather indifferent to the cause but whose wise observation of it from a more distant view makes her the one character who probably understands it best.

     

There are other mesmerizing supporting performances in this film, including Jessica Tandy, wonderful as an older woman in the movement; Nancy Marchand, as a wealthy New York woman whose son is in love with Verena; Nancy New as Olive’s sister, who has her eyes on Basil; and Wallace Shawn, as a greedy journalist out to exploit Verena.

But in the three leads, Reeve, who uses his considerable physical presence and charm to great advantage here, proves once and for all that he has the talent when he’s given the script; Redgrave as a most unhappy woman who lives through what she helps Verena become, is fascinating; and Potter, as a woman who seems to have always been something of a pawn for others, is quite complex and carries it off very well. All are magnificent.

Director James Ivory has an exciting eye for detail and photography, and obviously knows how to get the best from his performers. And the script, by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, is intelligent and very well developed.

My only complaints about this film have to do with its opening and closing scenes. The first few set-up moments come all too fast and are a bit jumbled, as if it’s in too great a hurry to escape the starting gate. And the ending is far too flat and unsatisfying, considering all that has gone before.

“The Bostonians” on the whole, however, is a fine-tuned film, with a great cast, and should more than satisfy those who have missed having a nice adult piece of entertainment in local theaters.

It is unrated, but would doubtless carry a PG – and then purely for its adult themes. There is no profanity, sex, nudity or violence.