Novelist Henry James, who wrote at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, was fascinated by the social conventions of his day, and particularly the interactions between people from the United States and Europe, as we see in some of his most famous novels, such as Portrait of a Lady. Peter Bogdanovich's film Daisy Miller takes one of James' short works as its basis, looking at the fortunes of a young woman from the United States on a European tour. As is so often the case with James, this is not a happy story.
Daisy Miller is the story of a young woman who "does as she likes," which in 19th century genteel society was very much not acceptable; not surprisingly, then, the story ends in tragedy. But what the story fails to account for, in my view, is why we should be interested. A tragedy can only be effective if we feel either sympathy or identification with the protagonist; if we don't care what happens to her, there's no sting in what happens to her. (It doesn't help, in that respect, that the conclusion of the story is oddly flat; the tragic ending seems arbitrary rather than emerging naturally from the events preceding it.)
Why don't we care? The title character of Daisy Miller is presented as an ignorant, obnoxious girl whose constant stream of self-indulgent prattle is uninterrupted by such mundane matters as acknowledging the presence or conversational attempts of her companions. Cybill Shepherd does an outstanding job of making Daisy utterly unendurable... a bit too much so for the movie's own good, actually. As the film proceeds, there's a hint that the brash outward persona is simply the uncultured expression of a rebellious mind, of a woman who simply refuses to be bound by social conventions. There's potential in that, except that it's a case of too little, too late.
If the film had more of a forward movement in its overall story, then it could have been interesting to watch Daisy as she runs into people who have better manners, and a different sense of propriety, than she does. However, while the film does set the stage for this collision fairly early on, with Winterbourne's aunt's scathing refusal to be introduced to Daisy at all, the story then languishes, leaving viewers to the dubious pleasure of watching Daisy and the mysteriously infatuated Winterbourne (Barry Brown).
It's a bad sign when alternative plot possibilities start looking more interesting than where the plot is likely to go. After enduring Daisy's monologue and her whiny, erratic behavior with Winterbourne (whose attraction to her I never fathomed), I was secretly rooting for the film to suddenly become a murder mystery: Someone pushes Daisy into the ocean, or out of a window! Everyone suspects Winterbourne, and he flees to Geneva! The police chase after him – but wait, all the other hotel guests are also suspects, because they all hated her just as much! (And her annoying little brother, too.) Alas, in my heart I knew that this was a Henry James story, and Henry James wouldn't have gone in for such pyrotechnics. Too bad.
The actors are, as a group, quite solid, including the young man who plays Daisy's incredibly obnoxious younger brother. It's the script that trips them up, with scenes that have an awkward pacing that, I suspect, worked far better on the written page than on the screen.
On the positive side, Daisy Miller is presented in an anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer, preserving the film's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Colors on the whole look satisfactory, with brighter colors having appropriate vibrancy and blacks looking appropriately dark. The main fault with the transfer is the very high level of noise, which in dimly lit scenes makes for an obtrusively grainy and blurry image, and reduces the overall clarity of the image at higher light levels as well.
The Dolby 2.0 mono soundtrack is serviceable for this dialogue-heavy film. The actors' voices are generally clear and are always natural-sounding and free of distortion. The dialogue does tend to be slightly lower in volume than it should be compared to the music portion of the track, which means that some fiddling with the volume controls may be necessary while watching the film. Overall, the sound is flat but adequate.
The special features on this disc will satisfy fans of the film: director Peter Bogdanovich provides a full-length audio commentary, as well as a thirteen-minute video introduction to the film, in which he discusses its origins and development.
Between the obnoxious title character and the lackluster story development, I found Daisy Miller to be intolerable, and especially as the transfer is fairly bland, I think a "skip it" is the appropriate recommendation. On the other hand, it has a very low retail price, so those viewers who actually liked this film can justify picking it up, at least to check out the commentary track.