The Europeans Review
Henry James categorised his 1878 novel The Europeans as ‘a sketch’, which rather than refer to any kind of incompleteness, refers to the lightness of touch of the short novel, the concision of its themes and, unlike his later works, a straightforward situation that belies the complexity of the characters. Merchant Ivory, in the earliest of their Henry James adaptations, perfectly carry off the tone and character of the James novel in their 1979 screen adaptation.
The arrival of their European relatives, Felix (Tim Woodward) and Eugenia, the Baroness Münster (Lee Remick), both fascinates and scandalises the Wentworths, an austere, Puritan New England family. The brother and sister are of American origin, but their mother rather scandalously turned Roman Catholic and left America to marry in Europe. Eugenia is exotically married to a German Prince, Prince Adolf of Silberstadt-Schreckenstein, but it is the process of going through a divorce. Their presence upsets the predetermined, carefully planned and pleasure-free existence of the God-fearing community. Gertrude Wentworth (Lisa Eichorn) seems destined to marry the virtuous minister Mr Brand (Norman Snow) although she doesn’t wish it herself, going as far as to wickedly avoid going to church on Sunday – but it isn’t until the arrival of her cousins that she is able to direct for herself a freer, self-determined existence.
Henry James sets his novel back in 1830, before the Civil War when Americans were self-assured of their righteousness, the simplicity and correctness of their existence. He contrasts this lifestyle with that of the European Americans who have been brought up in an apparently freer, more pleasurable society, but surprisingly, the author doesn’t necessarily see one as being better than the other. The Baroness is just as adept at suppressing her nature and feelings in her dealings with European society as the Wentworths are in Bostonian society. The characters who are truly happy by the end of the film are those who are truer to their nature – the artistic Felix (living up to his name) and Gertrude, who is contrasted in one scene with Mr Brand, wearing a garland in her hair – a nice visual touch in the script to emphasise the natural aspect of her character. However, as in James original novel, one lifestyle is not seen as better than the other, since both Mr Brand and Charlotte also find happiness within the simple austerity of their lifestyle, a happiness though that they also perhaps would not have found without the intervention of the Europeans.
The acting in the film is flawless, as is the casting. The Wentworth ladies are plain, but beautifully so and the Wentworth males rigid, severe and disapproving. Lee Remick is perfect as Eugenia – the right age, the correct bearing and appearance, with just a hint of elegant wickedness. Her character is a complex one and Remick shows those depths in her character in the disparity between what she says, what she expresses when she says it and what she actually means. This is most notable in her dealings with Robert Acton, likewise played with finesse by Robin Ellis, who has a slightly harder role, trying to keep up the façade of severity, keeping his cards close to his chest and not allowing his true intentions towards the Baroness to be outwardly shown. In order to express this, the dialogue must be subtle and solid – and it is. Adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the film’s script is entirely faithful to Henry James’ novel, practically line for line – and correctly so. The film flows gracefully with a lightness of touch, perfectly capturing the gentle satirical tone of the story.
The Europeans is already available to buy from Odyssey, but it has now been collected as part of the Merchant Ivory Collection in their Merchant Ivory in America boxset.
The slightly reddish tint to the colour doesn’t take away too much from the autumnal blazes of the beautiful New England location photography. The picture, presented in anamoprhic 1.78:1, is clear and sharp with, for the most part, adequate levels of shadow detail and scarcely a mark to be seen on the print. Some darker interiors are rather grey and murky and there is more than a hint of grain visible in some scenes, but overall, this is a reasonably good picture with few problems.
The audio is adequate, straightforward Dolby Digital 2.0 and is clear and audible throughout. There is some noise and harshness on louder passages, but it is never too distracting. The music, some delightful arrangements of Schumann and Schubert by Richard Robbin, comes across well and contributes effectively to both the grace and the levity of the film.
There are no hard of hearing subtitles on either the feature or the extra features.
Like other titles in the Merchant Ivory Collection, there are a number of mainly text-based extras, but there are also some extended interviews for this title. About the Film points out the clash between cultures theme in The Europeans so prevalent in Merchant Ivory films, a brief plot outline, some facts on the film’s cast, characters descriptions, as well as details of awards and nominations the film received. About Merchant Ivory provides a brief history of the company, their films and awards. Cast & Crew and Biographies provides a cast listing and further details on the principal players. In An Interview with Merchant Ivory Productions (15:13), James Ivory talks at length about what drew him to Henry James, and about adapting The Europeans to the screen. Ruth Jhabvala and Ismail Merchant also provide comments, as does Richard Robbin, the composer of the soundtrack. The Trailer (2:55) is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic and Other Merchant Ivory Trailers presents trailers for The Bostonians and Shakespeare Wallah.
As Merchant Ivory’s first real period film, The Europeans looks back with fondness on a more innocent time, but it also looks ahead to a need for Americans to look outside their doors and be aware of what is going on in the wider world. It was this nostalgic aspect for a simpler time that appealed to Merchant Ivory and it was also what contributed to the films success in a post-Vietnam era, but in its forward looking aspect, The Europeans, to only slightly push the point, is still as relevant and as modern as either Dogville or Fahrenheit 9/11. This excellent film has received an attractive transfer with some interesting extra features and is worth seeing whether purchased separately or as part of the Merchant Ivory in America boxset.