Wednesday, October 10, 2018

ENCHANTED APRIL - FILMSTRUCK

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in May 2009. It's being reprinted unedited with its original jokes intact...just because.


Of course, the obvious snarky question is why Enchanted April didn't come out on DVD until May, and I'd say the snarky answer would involve something to the effect that it felt like the 93-minute movie took a month to watch, so being a month late would just be par for the course.

Truth is, Enchanted April fans have waited much longer than that for the movie to come to disc in North America. Despite having won two Golden Globes in 1993 and getting nominated for multiple Oscars, this Mike Newell-helmed picture has not been on DVD before now. When I worked at a video store a couple of years ago, it was one of the most regularly requested titles amongst the customers. Perhaps this delay has built up too much expectation in me, given me too long to inflate my perceived appreciation of Enchanted April in my mind. I know I saw it during its theatrical run, and then at least once more on home video a couple of years later, but I'd wager it's been more than a decade since I last sat through it. The movie has gotten older, I've gotten older, and we've grown apart.


Enchanted April is a period piece set in the 1920s. It is the story of four British women and the Italian castle that provides them with a bucolic getaway for what is to be a month of no socializing, no husbands, nothing but the sea, the air, and the trees. The trip is initially organized by two bored housewives, Lottie Wilkins (Josie Lawrence), the wife of a gastronomically self-satisfied London-based solicitor (Alfred Molina), and Rose Arbuthnot (Miranda Richardson), who is married to a man (Jim Broadbent) who writes scandalous novels under an assumed name. To offset the costs of their holiday, the two advertise for vacation mates, eventually scoring a stuffy older woman (Joan Plowright) and a much-desired flapper (Polly Walker). As a little wrinkle of irony, the flapper, Lady Caroline, is trying to get out of town to escape the lecherous men who pursue her, and one of them is Mr. Arbuthnot. Uh-oh! Trouble's a-comin'!

Except, no, there will be no trouble. None at all. Rather, there will just be a month of relaxation and rehabilitation in the country, a month of quietly rediscovering oneself, and eventually of rekindling love. It's also a month of sheer boredom, a slow burn that never catches flame.

Enchanted April, even back when it seemed good, always came off as a bit of a sub-par take on Merchant Ivory territory. Written by Peter Barnes (the one-time much sharper writer of the satirically daring The Ruling Class) from a 1922 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, the movie details the kind of humdrum, repressed lives that many a James Ivory character has so expertly burst in his many great movies, and given that Enchanted April originally hit the Cineplex somewhere in between Howard's End [review] and Remains of the Day, it tied many of us over in terms of satisfying our yen for costume drama. Peter Barnes is no Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, however, and I doubt Ms. von Arnim is in the same league as Henry James. Likewise, Mike Newell is certainly no James Ivory; rather, he is the director of such middle-ground material as Mona Lisa Smile and Love in the Time of Cholera. His best-known movie (not counting his time at Hogwarts) is Four Weddings and a Funeral, another film that may not have aged well. After Enchanted April, I'm a little scared to find out.


It's not that Enchanted April is simply god-awful. It has some truly lovely locations, and I rather appreciated its use of multiple points-of-view, giving each lady her own voiceover in order to chronicle her inner thoughts. Polly Walker is as alluring as her part demands, affecting ennui and managing to be irresistibly attractive while doing so, and Miranda Richardson gives a subtle and nuanced performance that brings far more to the material than the filmmakers could have possibly hoped for. Looking out at the sea, pondering her life, she says more with her face than any of Barnes' dry narration ever could. The actress was really the only thing that kept me watching to the closing credits.

The problem is that Enchanted April takes its dispassionate stance far too seriously. The women are all supposed to change, transformed by their new surroundings, their blood once again boiled by the shining Italian sun--and yet, even as they change, the movie remains bloodless. Lots of light, but no heat and so no boiling. I didn't find the changes to be believable, instead they just came off as predictable, relying on audience expectation that the metamorphoses must happen rather than making the effort to inspire similar feelings within everyone watching. This is Merchant Ivory by the numbers, a costume drama going through the motions. The end result is that Enchanted April turns into a dreary pit stop rather than a life-changing experience. Rather than being the good thing we were waiting for to transport us to a better place and time, it's just more impetus to keep looking.



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