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The Merchant-Ivory group is famous for their excellent adaptations of literary works; but more and more, their films have become excessively dependant on the expertise of the actors to make the film a success. Or perhaps things have been like that all along and with the likes of Anthony Hopkins or Emma Thompson helming the film it just wasn't as noticeable.
Merchant-Ivory's latest venture, Le Divorce, never really gets off the ground. Marketed as a light-hearted romantic comedy, the story meanders between serious relationship issues and light romance disorienting the audience with its changes in tone. In the end, the film comes across as shallow and cliché as a rich American touring Europe to "discover themselves." It's a great film for Kate Hudson devotees, but will likely disappoint fans of the book and of Merchant-Ivory.
The film begins with Isabel Walker's arrival in Paris. The daughter of an upper-middle class Santa Barbara family, Isabel is in France to visit her pregnant sister, Roxy. As luck would have it, Isabel arrives at Roxy's apartment just in time to encounter Roxy's departing husband Charles-Henri. He has left Roxy for another woman.
As Roxy battles with her husband and the extremely biased French legal system for property and custody rights, Isabel traipses around Paris completely carefree. It's difficult to take Roxy's situation seriously when Isabel obviously does not. The phrase "broken-home" is thrown around and there is some debate about the ownership and authenticity of a painting but all in all the actual divorce is treated as somewhat of a bizarre side-story. Despite the title of the movie, the film really seems to be about the Isabel character's decadent lifestyle and not much else. It's so shallow, so vapid. Is this really a Merchant-Ivory movie? Where's the subtext? Where's the social commentary? All the elements are there but nothing is coming together!
I suspect that in the filmmakers' well-meaning attempt to bring each important moment from the 309-page novel to the screen, a great deal of richness and depth was stripped from the story. Without experienced lead actors to breathe life and depth back into the main characters, any substance Le Divorce may have had to offer is lost. Both Roxy and Isabel are dynamic, interesting women full of contradictions and emotions; but on-screen they are one-dimensional and change very little despite all that happens to them in the story. Though Watts and Hudson have a believable rapport as sisters, they lack the acting prowess to translate their characters from text to screen. The proof is in the supporting roles, held by the likes of Glenn Close, Stephen Fry, Bebe Neuwirth, and Leslie Caron. The highlight of the entire film is a bidding war between Fry and Neuwirth; two characters with a combined screen time of five minutes.
Though fans of the novel and Merchant-Ivory films will likely be disappointed; Kate Hudson enthusiasts will not be let down. She is irresistibly charming as the wide-eyed, sparkling Isabel and manages to make most unlikely French fashion look great (a thick-knitted red duster of all things, how does she do it?). Hudson revamps her Penny Lane role with a little more sophistication, but breaks little new ground as an actress. But hey, if it ain't broke...
The film makes some excellent juxtapositions: affairs vs. marriage, savoir-faire manners vs. American impulse, sentimentality vs. authenticity; but unfortunately, Le Divorce fails to come to a satisfying conclusion on any of these matters. C'est la vie? Maybe something just got lost in translation. The idea of adapting the novel Le Divorce probably looked good on paper. But the end result is only mediocre. There was clearly too much story to cram into two hours. As a Merchant-Ivory film, it was one notch below tolerable. As a Kate Hudson film it was passable. Rent it or skip it, your best bet is probably to "Read it."
-Megan A. Denny