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The Europeans

The Europeans(1979)

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Home Video Reviews

In a move that will please devotees of producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and the stately, deliberately rendered period dramas that are their hallmark, Home Vision Entertainment has recently released two of the team's best on DVD. Amongst these is The Europeans (1979), the adaptation of Henry James' 1878 novel that first brought the Merchant/Ivory look and feel to the past generation of moviegoers.

James, a native New Yorker who died a British subject, frequently explored the push and pull between American and Continental culture in his writings, and these concerns are at The Europeans' core. The story is set in the outreaches of Boston in the 1840s, and deals with the well-to-do Wentworth clan, whose patriarch (Wesley Addy) ensures that the family hews to a drab Yankee gentility. His daughter Gertrude (Lisa Eichhorn) feels a vague dissatisfaction with her lot in life, up to and including a tepid and very proper courtship by the local clergyman, Mr. Brand (Norman Snow).

Into this very staid universe comes a very distracting influence, worldly cousins of the Wentworths who have seen the best and worst that life abroad has to offer, and now show up on the family's doorstep. The beautiful Eugenie (Lee Remick), her marriage to a count all but formally over, is reduced to having to beg for whatever aid is available. Her brother Felix (Tim Woodward) is a gentlemanly bohemian with little prospects beyond what his gifts as an artist can bring. Mr. Wentworth graciously, if cautiously, opens his household to these relations, while dryly forewarning his brood about the dangerous notions that they harbor.

The cousins' insinuation into the lives of the Wentworths and their community drives The Europeans from there on out. Gertrude becomes taken with the charming, aesthetic Felix, and both are faced with the twin challenges of re-routing Mr. Snow's affections and gaining the unimpressed Mr. Wentworth's approval. Eugenie, for her part, flirts with the Wentworths' handsome, eligible neighbor Robert Acton (Robin Ellis). As much as he would like to reciprocate, Acton finds the artifices of her attentions more off-putting then enticing.

Considering that the budget of the Massachusetts/New Hampshire location shooting came in at a cost of only $700,000, the amount of the painstaking period detail in the film's costumes and sets becomes all the more striking. Cinematographer Larry Pizer rendered those details vividly, and did no less with the beautiful autumn tones of the film's exteriors. Merchant and Ivory's perennial screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, did a skillful job of transferring James' social observance and dry humor from page to screen, just as she would go on to do for the team's adaptations of The Bostonians (1984) and The Golden Bowl (2001).

The very able cast properly underplays the material, with the radiant Remick doing some of the most delicate work of her career, and Addy often wryly amusing as the impossibly stolid father. Note must be made of the contributions of composer Richard Robbins, who underscored the culture clashes of the narrative by juxtaposing Schumann, Schubert and Verdi with Stephen Foster quadrilles.

Criterion turned in its usual impeccable job in crafting the package. The mastering was done from a new digital transfer that does justice to the vibrancy of Pizer's autumnal vistas, and presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The extras include 15 minutes of new interviews with Ivory, Merchant, Jhabvala, and Robbins. Amongst its revelations, Ivory discloses that while James' story was set over a spring and summer, the availability of cast and financing dictated a fall shoot. Also included is Sweet Sounds (1976), a 29-minute short directed by Robbins under Merchant/Ivory's aegis that follows the young students at New York's Mannes College of Music. Further, the disc offers the film's original theatrical trailer, as well as those for Criterion's other recent Merchant/Ivory releases, The Bostonians and Maurice (1987).

For more information about The Europeans, visit Home Vision. To order The Europeans, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jay S. Steinberg