“You always want to please someone — Miss Chancellor, your parents, whoever else is dear to you. But it’s not really you.”
A suffragette (Vanessa Redgrave) and her chauvinist southern cousin (Christopher Reeve) vie for the affections of a charismatic young orator (Madeleine Potter).
Merchant-Ivory’s adaptation* of Henry James’ tragicomic novel (which prompted the coining of the phrase “Boston marriage”) is apparently quite faithful to its source material (which I’ve never read) — up until its infamously modified final scene. Vanessa Redgrave deservedly won an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a very thinly-veiled lesbian suffragette in post-Civil War Boston who falls head-over-heels in love with Potter from the moment she first hears her speak; meanwhile, Christopher Reeve gives one of his best non-Superman performances as the unapologetically prick-ish southern lawyer vying for Potter’s attentions. As the center of the battle between Redgrave and Reeve, Potter — an unconventionally cherubic beauty — is a controversial casting choice, but ultimately (I believe) suits the role: she exudes enough gentle charisma to convince one of her viability as a magnet for both suitors. This most unusual “love triangle” plays out against Merchant-Ivory’s typically lush period sets, and — despite a frustratingly melodramatic ending, and insufficiently explored characterizations — offers some subtly provocative statements about the nature of repression, longing, obsession, and rivalry.
* Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, long-time Merchant-Ivory collaborator, wrote the screenplay.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Vanessa Redgrave as Olive Chancellor (oddly excluded from Peary’s list of nominees in Alternate Oscars)
- Christopher Reeve as Basil Ransome
- Madeleine Potter as Verena Tarrant
- Fine supporting performances (in small roles) by Jessica Tandy, Linda Hunt, and Nancy Marchand
- Lovely sets and production values
No, though it’s strongly recommended just to see Redgrave’s performance.