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Despite a number of contemporary stories and subjects ranging from Shakespeare-Wallah (1965) to Slaves of New York (1989) to Le divorce (2003), the filmmaking team of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory will always be best known for lush, stately period pieces, particularly those based on classic literature of the early 20th century. That reputation began with The Europeans (1979), the first of three adaptations of Henry James undertaken by the team.
The film, based on James's 1878 novel but set in 1850, details the return of a brother and sister to the stuffy New England household of their dour uncle. After years living abroad, the two siblings--Eugenia, now a baroness bent on divorcing her husband, and Felix, a bohemian painter--are seen as worldly and sophisticated by their impressionable young cousin Gertrude and as wicked hedonists by their uncle. Their arrival sets off a conflict between Old World and New that ends, characteristically for a Merchant Ivory film, in happiness for some and disillusionment for others.
Ivory had read some of the novels of Henry James back in college at the University of Southern California in the mid-1950s, but it was Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Ivory's German-born co-writer since The Householder (1963) who drew his attention back to the author as a possible source for movie material. "I thought Jim had quite a lot in common with Henry James," she told the New York Times in 2010. "The elegance, for one thing; nobility, for another; extreme attention to people and relationships and the slow and patient way that Jim has, and that Henry James has." She gave Ivory in 1966, telling him James was, in a way, writing for him. Ivory liked the book, and a few years later, the two began to develop the screenplay.
Financing The Europeans did not come easily, however, especially since Merchant-Ivory, although already critically acclaimed for such films as Bombay Talkie (1970) and Roseland (1977), were not yet the bankable international successes they would become after A Room with a View (1985). Bolstered by a recommendation from Henry James biographer Leon Edel, they applied to the National Endowment for the Humanities for partial funding but were turned down when the review panel deemed the book to be one of James's poorest novels. When it became obvious they would get no support from any American source, they turned to England's National Film Finance Corporation. A major commitment from that group then brought in other investors, including a West German television company, but the last-minute withdrawal of one important backer forced Merchant to scramble for funds just as principle photography was beginning. In the end, The Europeans cost about $700,00 to make, and the team was rewarded with their first significant hit both in the U.S. and abroad.
The film was shot on location in New England, partly in Salem, in autumn 1978. The art director, Jeremiah Rusconi, had never worked on a film before. He was a friend of Ivory's who restored old houses, picked by the director because of his familiarity with the style of American period homes. Although he received a British Academy Award nomination for his work, Rusconi has only done one other film, another Merchant Ivory production, Jane Austen in Manhattan (1980).
The Europeans was the second movie on which composer Richard Robbins collaborated with the Merchant Ivory team, and the first for which he handled the music, having acted as Ismail Merchant's assistant on Roseland (1977). Although he received his first motion picture credit for original music, he received particular praise for choosing existing music and arranging it to fit the themes, action, and characters within each scene, including works by Clara Schumann (which he had envisioned even before shooting began) and Stephen Foster. He also played a small uncredited bit in the film, as did Ivory. Robbins has worked on 17 films directed by James Ivory, and received Academy Award nominations for his scoring of two of them: Howard's End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993). He also scored three pictures directed by Ismail Merchant, and three others Merchant produced.
Lee Remick was the first choice for the role of Eugenia, but she initially turned it down. It was then offered to Lynn Redgrave, who decided against it in favor of another project. Remick reportedly called only a month before shooting and agreed to do the role. Despite Remick's considerable skills and presence, many reviews singled out Lisa Eichhorn for her work as Gertrude, the New England girl who throws over her stuffy fiance in favor of the artistic European-raised brother.
The Europeans was nominated for a Best Costume Design Oscar, Best Foreign Film in the Golden Globes, Palme d'or (for James Ivory) at the Cannes Film Festival, and three BAFTA (British) Awards for Costume Design, Production Design, and Supporting Actress (Eichhorn).
Director: James Ivory
Producer: Ismail Merchant
Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, based on the novel by Henry James
Cinematography: Larry Pizer
Editing: Humphrey Dixon
Art Direction: Jeremiah Rusconi
Original Music: Richard Robbins
Cast: Lee Remick (Eugenia Young), Robin Ellis (Robert Acton), Wesley Addy (Mr. Wentworth), Tim Choate (Clifford), Lisa Eichhorn (Gertrude), Tim Woodward (Felix Young).
by Rob Nixon