The Bostonians (1984)

The Bostonians (1984)
  • 1782
  • Not Rated
  • Genre: Drama
  • Release year: 1984 ()
  • Running time: 122 min
  • Original Title: The Bostonians
  • Voted: 1782

19th-century Boston woman dedicated to the suffrage movement, meets a faith healer's daughter, a Mississippi lawyer also has eyes for the young woman.

1Christopher ReeveBasil Ransome
2Vanessa RedgraveOlive Chancellor
3Jessica TandyMiss Birdseye
4Madeleine PotterVerena Tarrant
  • The World of Henry James by 8

    Henry James has not been an easy author to bring to the screen. The Heiress has been one glorious exception and even with the fine production values that Merchant/Ivory brought to The Bostonians it still doesn't quite measure up to The Heiress in glorious black and white.

    That being said The Bostonians is great window on the world of Henry James and the upper class society in which he moved in New York and Boston. James was a great evaluator of human nature even of the love that dare not speak its name.

    Stripped of all the trimmings about the emerging women's movement what we've got here is a triangle with a lesbian twist. Vanessa Redgrave got an Oscar nomination for Best Actress with her portrayal as an intellectual leader who feels she hasn't the voice to articulate the issues surrounding suffrage and all the other inequalities women endured back then. She latches on to a protégé in the person of Madeline Potter recently shilling for her faith healer father Wesley Addy. What she cannot, dare not articulate is the physical attraction she's feeling for Potter.

    Redgrave is simply marvelous as the frustrated, possibly even latent lesbian. We're never sure if she has or will ever consummate her feelings. This is Boston of the 1870s-1880s where such things are frowned there even more than most places in the USA.

    Vanessa's rival for Potter is Christopher Reeve a devilishly handsome young blade from the south who has come north to seek his fortune as a lawyer. As for Potter she's not sure of what she wants or even that Redgrave's interest in her is more than politics.

    Linda Hunt and Jessica Tandy have a pair of good roles, The Bostonians is great in terms of roles for women. Tandy is an aged old soul who rejoices in the changes in America she's seen in the 19th century of which she remembers most of. Hunt is her nurse/companion who is a shrewd observer of the events around her and Tandy.

    The Bostonians also got a nomination for Costume Design and the shooting in Boston and New York are fine. Boston has kept a lot of the same look Henry James knew in certain areas of the city and James Ivory made great use of Central Park in New York and some of the structures there that were put up in the time of Henry James.

    I won't say what happens other than to say that Vanessa Redgrave does find it in herself to articulate her cause. As for the rest you have to watch this very fine production to find out.

  • Abysmal on all counts by 1

    With an uncompromising dedication to character, and a flair for graceful, richly-textured storytelling, Merchant-Ivory seemed incapable of mediocrity. And with the recent passing of Ismail Merchant, I've been thumbing through the company's stellar filmography with renewed appreciation. Adoring the costume drama, I donned my comfy slippers and International Coffee and settled into 120 minutes of Merchant-Ivory bliss.

    What I got instead was The Bostonians, the MI treatment of Henry James' witty and satirical novel about the earliest days of the feminist movement. This production took a fun and biting social commentary and turned it into gooey melodrama. It failed to show the irony of a headstrong young feminist (daughter of a "mesmeric healer" and a chronic hypochondriac) allowing herself to be manipulated on all sides while falling for a dull, misogynistic Southern lawyer. It turned the classic Plutonic relationship with her feminist mentor into the clawing desperation of an aging lesbian. Script appeal seesawed between eating a mouthful of alum, and blowing butterscotch pudding out one's nose. Editing was at once jagged and lumpy, spending copious amounts of film on innocuous bits of business, only to slam the guillotine so close to some dialog that it made me wonder about my DVD player. And that's only the half of it.

    Stiff and lumbering is all I ever expect of the now canonized Christopher Reeve, so this performance shouldn't have surprised me. But it did. Reeve was channeling some kind of Confederate Heathcliff with a little Mary Shelley thrown in for good measure. Reading his lines from crib notes apparently taped to the bottom of the camera lens, he never blinked nor gave the slightest indication of understanding his dialog. He seemed to be forever walking downhill, and was patently incapable of moving his head. On seeing this performance, one could almost believe that the future riding accident might actually improve his flexibility. The heroin, as played by a mush-mouthed Madeleine Potter, showed all the plucky conviction of a plate of cold baked beans (yes, with the little puddles of congealed pork fat floating on top). As for the usually magnificent Vanessa Redgrave (in the desperate aging lesbian role), I say 'let's just forget this ever happened.' The only redeeming performances were two tiny bits sent in by Linda Hunt and Jessica Tandy. I'd be surprised if their scripts totaled more than 150 words. It would seem the director didn't bother to load their bloomers with the 100 lbs of wet oatmeal like he did with everyone else.

    In a way, it's a shame I only rented The Bostonians. I'll miss out on the gratification I'd have felt in putting it in the microwave. What a tragic waste of good couch time.

  • Merchant/Ivory offering falls flat by 5

    Well meant production from the magical Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala team. This one was made before they hit their stride, however. The first mistake was casting Christopher Reeve in the lead. He always looks like he's acting, there's nothing natural about it. His performance here is in par with cheap 70's pornography acting. He is supposedly classically trained as an actor, but I guess anyone who pays for and attends acting classes can say the same. Some have it and some don't, he doesn't. The costumes, art direction and sets are all lavish and appealing. The dialog is far too updated to make one believe that it's taking place in another century, it's almost like a high school production in that aspect. Redgrave and Marchand both give good performances, nothing remarkable at all, but acceptable. The rest of the cast is a mish-mash of mostly b-listers. Scriptwriter Jhabvala has proved herself time and again to be quite the artist, but the script here is flat. Perhaps the book it was based on is this dull and unconvincing. I was left simply unaffected by any message they were trying to convey about the period. I'm a fanatic when it comes to Merchant/Ivory pictures, but this one just didn't cut it. It seems they were more in their element with their amazing and opulent European productions. The quality of their American films seems to be quite cheap in production in comparison. I'm simply left wondering what a masterpiece this could have been had it been set in and filmed in England. If you're an Ivory/Merchant fan, stick with their better titles "A Room With A View" & "Sense And Sensibility", they both surpass this effort by leagues.

  • Not one of the best Merchant-Ivory films or Henry James adaptations, but while not for everyone there's still a lot to admire by 6

    The Bostonians on the whole is not among the best Merchant-Ivory films, like A Room with a View, Howard's End and especially The Remains of the Day, nor is it anywhere near The Innocents, The Wings of the Dove and particularly The Heiress as among the best Henry James adaptations. However, while it has its problems it is not a bad film and does laudably adapting a difficult work (even for an author that is notoriously difficult to adapt like James).

    Are there flaws here? Yes, there are. The changed ending is far too melodramatic and clumsily written as a (possible) attempt to make it accessible to modern audiences (maybe?), undermining any intellectual sensibility that the story or James beforehand show. While Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's screenplay fares very credibly mostly it doesn't come off completely successfully, the savage humour of the book is very toned down (in contrast to the somewhat lack of subtlety, pretty overt actually, in the writing of the Olive and Verena relationship, loved the tension between the two though) and sometimes absent which gives the film a bland feel sometimes, the characters are still very interesting and complex but lack the philosophical depth of the book and that final speech is so cornball and misplaced.

    Merchant-Ivory films always did have deliberate pacing, but more than made up for it with slightly more involving drama and characterisation and more consistent script-writing than seen here, sometimes The Bostonians moved along at a snail's pace which made the blander, less involving dramatically sections almost interminable. And despite being devilishly handsome and with the right amount of virile masculinity Christopher Reeve seemed completely out of his depth as Ransom, throughout he is stiff and although his character is unlikeable in the first place there is very little in Reeve's performance that makes it obvious what Olive and Verena see in him.

    However, there is much to admire as well. As always with a Merchant-Ivory film it is incredibly well-made, with truly luxuriant cinematography, exquisite settings and scenery and some of the most vivid costume design personally seen from a film recently. There is a beautiful music score as well that couldn't have fitted more ideally, and appropriately restrained direction from James Ivory, and while there were a few misgivings with the script Jhabvala actually adapts it very credibly. It's a very thought-provoking, elegantly written and literate script that has a good deal of emotional impact, it is not easy condensing James' very dense, wordy and actions-occurring-inside-characters'-heads prose to something cohesive for film but Jhabvala manages it with grace and intelligence on the most part. Again, pacing could have been tighter but the story is still very poignant and has a good degree of tension and emotion.

    Best of all is how beautifully played it is by a very good cast, apart from Reeve. Madeleine Potter does lack allure for Verena, but plays with gentle winsomeness, intelligence and sweet charm. In the supporting roles, Linda Hunt is dependably very good, Jessica Tandy is moving in her performance and (in particular) Nancy Marchand's verbal cat-and-mouse-game helps give the film some of its tension. Along with the cinematography and costumes, one of The Bostonians' best aspects is the towering performance of Vanessa Redgrave, Olive is more sympathetically written here and Redgrave brings a real intensity and affecting dignity to the role which makes for compulsive viewing.

    All in all, much to admire but also could have been better. 6/10 Bethany Cox

  • Merchant and Ivory's best film. by 10

    I am sticking my neck out here but I truly believe ' The Bostonians ' is the best film this remarkable couple of Merchant and Ivory made. It is flawless. And why ? Because of the actors, the tight script and drawing out the essence of one of the finest of Henry James's novels. I disagree that it is Lesbian in content. The ambiguity of Vanessa Redgrave's performance goes deeper than that. She touches all the sensitive areas of repressed and misguided love which only she, as possibly the UK's greatest actor, could do. Without giving spoilers her role as a woman who loves a younger woman is more complex than lesbianism. Tenderness and love between women is often mis-translated by men as being sexual because they are physically stirred by the thought. I suggest men especially should watch the film more closely. It is in my opinion the battle of two people, one a man played excellently by Christopher Reeve ( how he shone under James Ivory's direction ) and of a woman who believes that the friend she loves most should remain faithful to the cause of women and to her friendship. The battle for possession of this younger woman and for her to make a choice in life which she is not yet mature enough to make is at the very core of the film, and is bitterly painful to watch. The use twice of Brahms ' Alto Rhapsody ' is in my opinion not in the film simply because it sounds nice. It is one of the saddest pieces of music and not there for it's perhaps misinterpreted sound. It is a moral plea in music for men and women not to become cold towards others, and roughly in translation the words ' destroys his own soul in unsatisfying egoism ' could apply to both Vanessa Redgrave's character and to Christopher Reeve's. Both of their character's want to possess the young woman, when she needs a true, and not a destroying choice of her own. When she makes the choice the viewer should be crying out for both of her battling pursuers to let her go and find her own unique world. A lot of Henry James is centred upon this kind of battle for ego centred or moneyed needs. I would say from ' The Turn of the Screw ' to ' The Wings of a Dove '. I apologise to those who may read this for not getting on with the film's cinematic qualities. I had an intuitive feeling that James Ivory got exactly what he wanted from this work, without compromise of any kind. His cast is exactly right and Helen Hunt, Nancy Marchand and Jessica Tandy give their best, but I also have to include the whole cast. To look at it is a million miles away from the sort of painting by numbers that most TV or film adaptations can be, and there are scenes of pure visual genius such as Christopher Reeve entering a theatre with spears ( as decoration ) pointing at him, and the horrific delusion in Vanessa Redgrave's mind of her friend, dead, being cast ashore by the sea. Only an excellent director could conceive such images so psychologically clearly. And despite certain carping from mediocre film critics who should know better the genius of Merchant and Ivory should be far more celebrated.

1Walter Lassallycinematographer
2Richard Robbinscomposer
3James Ivorydirector
4Ismail Merchantproducer
5Henry Jameswriter
6Ruth Prawer Jhabvalawriter

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