Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel


Directed by Mike Newell. Screenplay by Peter Barnes from the novel by Elizabeth von Arnim. Cinematography, Rex Maidment. Editing, Dick Allen. Design, Malcolm Thornton. Music, Richard Rodney Bennet. Cast: Josie Lawrence, Miranda Richardson, Joan Plowright, Polly Walker, Alfred Molina, Jim Broadbent, Michael Kitchen, et al.  A Miramax release. 93 min. PG.

An enchanting movie. taken from a novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, who was born in Australia, grew up in England, married a German Count in 1890, lived in Pomerania and became a prolific, much respected writer. Debts forced her husband to sell his estate and move to England in 1908. He died two years later. Elizabeth, first in Switzerland and then in England, hobnobbed with major literary figures, married, in 1916, the second Earl Russell (Bertrand Russell¹s brother), soon left , then divorced him. She lived in America, Switzerland, London and the French Riviera. Died in the U.S.A. in 1941, at age 75.

In 1921 she rented a medieval castello in Portofino, Italy, and there she wrote a novel, The Enchanted April(1922) about four women who, in the early 1920s, find (or find again) romance and themselves during a one-month spring holiday in an Italian castle just like Elizabeth¹s.

The movie is not only a faithful adaptation of the book but it was filmed in the very country-house (Castello Brown) where Elizabeth had stayed. The story starts with Lottie Wilkins (Josie Lawrence, best-known as a stand-up comedienne) whose husband Mellersh (Alfred Molina) is an opportunistic solicitor, something of a lout and, like many men of the period, a male chauvinist pig. Lottie¹s eye catches an advertisement for an Italian rental, gets carried away, decides to use her nest-egg. She finds an instant housemate in Rose Arbuthnot (Miranda Richardson), whom some call "a disappointed Madonna." She is the neglected wife of Frederick (Jim Broadbent). He writes pseudonymous sex novels, and while not a bad sort, is immersed in the social whirl and his own insecurities.

To share expenses, the two women first enlist old Mrs. Fisher (Joan Plowright), a curmudgeon and  "a woman of parts and property" who lives in the past, when she hobnobbed with the Who's Who of England. Then, young, beautiful and blase socialite Lady Caroline Dester (Polly Walker, the terrorist killer in Patriot Games ) like a latter-day Penelope, wants to escape her suitors and the social whirl. She feels out of sorts. Hers is a more literary case of "ennui" or what Baudelaire called "spleen" or what we might call "anomie" today.

After the grey wetness of London and the women¹s various mini-slaveries, the same-sex company, the new-found liberation and the Italian sun and flowers feel like Paradise. Things get better and better in the castello. Affectionate relationships are gently formed.  Unexpectedly, Lottie invites her husband. He comes for the wrong, material reasons but soon, falling under the place¹s enchantment, he turns into an understanding man who finally finds his wife attractive.

The landlord, Mr. Briggs (Michael Kitchen), a romantic, mildly bohemian type who plays the oboe, drops in, attracted by Rose who, he thinks, is a war widow. Why, after all, would 1920's women travel alone?  Finally, Frederick shows up, first meeting Lady Caroline whom he knows well, then his wife, whom he will also treat with affection. The trio situation is gently handled but with the unrealized potential of a farce by Feydeau, whom, oddly, writer Barnes has adapted for the British stage.

Moviegoers and novel readers are abundantly familiar with the subject of motley groupings and the theme of sunny Italy transforming repressed Anglos. Nothing very new here, nothing particularly dramatic. But how charmingly executed! My only complaint is that whereas I find the four ladies utterly charming and deserving the best, the two husbands are much too generously and improbably redeemed.

The actresses are letter-perfect, the husbands a tad grotesque, the deja vu magic convincing. Beautifully shot, the film balances well its ironic use of London with the sentimental mood of Portofino. It uses ellipses with tact and no arty editing, avoids the obvious. (In a remarkable scene, a lizard simply walks the length of a recumbent, sleeping lady, and leaves without the usual moment of panic).

The tempo is slow, not recommended to fanatics of action movies, car crashes or gun play, but slow like a musical movement marked "lento."

Enchanted April is not an "impressive" film that makes transcendent statements or is fed by a dynamic plot. It is a sweet, un-maudlin, appealing work. Often, from small movies big pleasures grow.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel