Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Merchant/Ivory Films slowly developed a reputation for quality, and an almost unique civilized manner. It
really is a wonder that they've managed to stay so un-commercial, until one realizes that they took their
time and tapped into a splinter audience that actually enjoys and seeks out quality entertainment.
I caught up with Ivory at the second Filmex in Hollywood in 1972, where he screened his bizarre neanderthal
man satire Savages. The film never went anywhere, but it had the dryest, most droll sense of humor
I've ever seen, combined with lots of R-rated hanky-panky among the mud men of the forest. It wasn't
typical of his work.
The Ivory-Merchant-Jhabvala team had been doing interesting work together for almost twenty years before
they hit their commercial stride with The Europeans, the first of their two Henry James adaptations.
Shot in a fall New England of gloriously-colored leaves, it told a story of a reserved,
formal, studiously pious Massachusetts family, and how they change because of one visit by two outspoken,
free-thinking, and supposedly 'sophisticated' relations from the Continent.
The pace is a pre-civil war crawl; people rarely raise their voices above a quiet monotone, and the father
of the family is too passionate about being seriously, seriously sober, to even break into a smile.
1840. The proper, god-fearing Wentworth family of New England is invaded by European
relatives, the Youngs. Eugenia (Lee Remick) is a titled Countess at the back end of a divorce, and Felix
Tim Woodward) is a young
painter. Both have progressive and unconventional minds; the dour Wentworth patriarch (Wesley Addey)
welcomes them but warns all to be wary of odd foreign ways and influences. It doesn't work: his daughter
Gertrude (Lisa Eichhorn) is bursting to escape home and find life, and is immediately attracted to Felix.
Son Clifford (Tim Choate) flirts with Eugenia, while Eugenia sets her cap for local businessman Robert
Acton (Robin Ellis). Eugenia is so fast with words that she soon feels unwelcome among the sober,
literal-speaking Wentworth parents, and retreats to her cottage. Her coy and deceptive manner confuses
Acton. Robert's sister Lizzie (Kristin Griffith) plots to scuttle his new non-romance, but Lizzie
is using her own feminine wiles to snare young Clifford for her mate.
The Europeans takes some getting used to, as later 'classy' literary adaptations like Pride and
Prejudice are five times more lively. The deliberate pace will bore anybody who'd never considered
reading a classic book, and it takes a while to acclimatize one's mind to the period conversations, where
everyone has to consider what they say twice before daring to say it - and then someone still might be offended.
Father Wentworth is a great stick of a man, respected by all and certainly not a hypocrite (although
I'm not sure we know how he makes his money). His family is well off, but they eschew luxury and pretense.
There's an unnerving lack of guile in the words of this 'plain speaker', who will tell a stranger or a loved
one exactly what he thinks of them at any given time, without irony or the slightest ulterior motive. He's
refreshing because he's also not intolerant: faced with relatives who behave oddly, he tends to move into
a benign philosophical evaluation of the problem. He seems incapable, at least in this environment, of
acknowledging the possibility of other values or lifestyles. If other races or ethnicities moved in next to him,
though, he seems so fundamentally good that he'd find a way to welcome them.
That's the way of the Wentworths, but the younger generation is determined to push the limits of
acceptable behavior. Lisa Eichhorn plays the stifled Gertrude, who seeks escape with every pore in her body,
yet knows that she has to have father's blessing to step off her front porch. He little brother Clifford
is a harmless kid who probably thinks he's wanton hellion just for thinking thoughts unapproved by
The two Europeans are a brother and sister who breeze in and dazzle the gray, sober Wentworths with
their penchant for idle small talk and constant allusions to the wide Continental world of freedom, ideas, and
social mobility. Poor Mother Wentworth doesn't even know how to react to Eugenia, a bubbly, fast-talking
chatterbox. And Mr. Wentworth raises a curious eyebrow at Felix, a man who doesn't seem to work except when
he paints, has no desire to pursue a career, and talks in flowery speeches. Mr. Wentworth treats them
both as exceptional people that he will eventually understand, if they slow down long enough.
The Europeans are like a bomb in the local stew of romances. Gertrude falls for Felix (chastely, of course)
while fending off the advances of Reverend Brand, a sober puritan who simply assumes they were meant to be
a couple, and can't wait to tame her flights of fancy. Clifford thinks he's making time with the glamorous older woman
Eugenia, not knowing the conniving Lizzie Acton has her eyes on him. And poor earnest Robert Acton's dignified advances
to Eugenia are met with coyness and evasions that perplex him. Eugenia goes for him as well, but is
determined to first shake at least one unrestrained emotion out of the man, before making up her mind. Although the Americans
are just as manipulative, Eugenia's capricious refusal to give straight answers brands her as a wild card, and
she may not have a future in the Boston area, so to speak.
Those able to get down to The Europeans' quiet, subtle level of discourse will be charmed, and
will hang on every word that comes out of these characters' mouths. Enough audiences were
charmed in 1979 to make the
show a hit and launch the Merchant/Ivory team forward to bigger successes like
A Room with a View. The muted tone and lack of bombastic emotional climaxes (Lisa Eichhorn's nervous
breathing is about all the excitement the film has to offer) make it a film for refined tastes - but not for
snobs. I can see it driving many viewers up the wall, waiting for something to happen, but
the story proceeds at a proper 1840 clip ... remember, railroads were still a futuristic notion then.
HVe's DVD of The Europeans is a beauty, with every differently-colored autumn leaf glowing at us.
The lighting seems natural for the time, and the ascetic just-so quality of the period clothing comes across
well in the enhanced transfer. Merchant/Ivory fans will be ecstatic.
There are a couple of ambitious extras. And interview section has full sit-downs with all the creative
participants. They're a very impressive bunch, but after sampling a few sections here, I moved on. A
half-hour film called Sweet Sounds is extremely good - it follows a handful of children chosen for
a music development class as they're instructed by expert music teachers. The emphasis is on the the children's
faces, which display a remarkably candid range that changes from rapt focus, to indifference, to delight.
The teachers' interest in music is infectious, and the show ends with us all wishing we could have been part
of the class at age 7. It was directed by The Europeans' composer, Richard Robbins.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Excellent, for refined tastes, shall we say
Supplements: Sweet Sounds, a docu film; Conversation with the
Filmmakers, interviews; trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 24, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson