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The Bostonians

The Bostonians(1984)

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Home Video Reviews

As the flagship release for a series of works from producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory issued on DVD under the stamp of The Criterion Collection, The Bostonians (1984) is exemplary of the team's dedication to intricate period detail and compelling, mature narrative. Once again successfully tapping the writings of Henry James, the filmmakers do a creditable job of adapting his 1886 tale of a war of wills set against the nascent era of the American feminist movement.

In one corner is Olive Chancellor (Vanessa Redgrave), a severe, repressed spinster of Old Beantown whose passions and focus are channeled near-exclusively into the greater cause of women's rights. The opposition is her cousin, the Mississipi-born attorney Basil Ransom (Christopher Reeve), handsome, overbearing, and unrepentantly chauvinistic in the extreme. Olive has invited him to visit in the hopes he'll be a prospect for her marriage-minded sister (Nancy New), but his insistence on accompanying his host to a feminist lecture sets up the tale's propelling conflict.

The cousins take in a presentation by Verena Tarrant (Madeleine Potter), a young woman with a preternatural gift for oratory whose heartfelt overtures for gender parity command the room. Olive is immediately overcome by Verena's presence, and sees her potential as the charismatic voice of the cause that Olive herself could never be. She fosters a friendship with the younger woman, to the point where she is paying off Verena's charlatan faith-healer father (Wesley Addy) to maintain her companionship.

Unfortunately, Olive isn't the only one to have developed an instant fixation. As the seasons pass, Basil becomes ever more determined to breach Olive's defenses and make his intentions known to Verena. He makes no pretense of regarding her sexual politics as anything but hooey, and insists that she'll only find fulfillment in adhering to his ultra-traditional notions of marriage. Olive lives in dread of seeing her emotional and ideological investments in Verena collapse, and her protege is also torn by the choice she is ultimately forced to make.

Redgrave's work took that year's Best Actress award from the National Society Of Film Critics, and obtained Oscar and Golden Globe nominations; it was well merited, as she did a remarkable job of vesting the austere role with ingratiating vulnerability. Reeve is mannered but effective as the cocksure counselor cousin, infusing just enough charm to buoy his characterization with sympathy. Potter might have been too much to shoulder in the pivotal role; while Verena's discourses come off as pleasant rather than arresting, she acquits herself in demonstrating the anguish Verena feels as the fulcrum in the heated battle.

The other roles in the piece are essentially window dressing, but are well rendered by various notables. Standouts include Jessica Tandy as a movement matriarch facing her final hours; Linda Hunt as a bemused lady physician; and Nancy Marchand as the grand dame mother of a Harvard man (John Van Ness Philips) eager to be one of Verena's first male acolytes. Originally slated to be part of a large WGBH project saluting the James family, the Boston public television station found its government funding slashed. Merchant/Ivory took their groundwork for The Bostonians and raised the $2 million production budget to bring it to completion.

Merchant/Ivory fans should be mightily pleased with the promise this release shows for Criterion's upcoming series. Presented in the original 1.78:1 theatrical aspect ratio, the new digital transfer was supervised by Ivory and taken from the original 35mm interpositive. The bonus materials are highlighted by fifteen minutes of new interviews with Ivory, Merchant, and their regular scenarist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who discuss their rationale in tweaking the story's conclusion as written by James among many other issues of note. The package is rounded out by the film's original theatrical trailer, as well as those for Criterion's recent Merchant/Ivory release The Europeans (1979) and the forthcoming Heat and Dust (1983).

For more information about The Bostonians, visit Criterion Collection. To order The Bostonians, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jay S. Steinberg