Monday, March 18, 2019

Neglected Gem: Enchanted April (1992)

Josie Lawrence and Joan Plowright in Enchanted April.

During World War I, two middle-aged women, fed up with their dreary marriages, answer an ad to rent a castle in the Italian countryside for a month; their lives – as well as the lives of two strangers who agree to share the rent – are magically altered. That’s the premise of Enchanted April. There have now been enough comedies of this forest-of-Arden variety to call it a genre – I Know Where I’m Going and Local Hero and High Season and, in a way, May Fools and Where the Heart Is (where the magic setting is a fantastical vision of New York). I’m not sure why, but this is one sort of movie that almost always seems to work: I loved all of those earlier pictures, and Enchanted April is a charmer. (The exception, ironically, is the 1935 movie version of the same material, a 1922 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim). Part of the charm lies in the fact that it’s as different from the other movies as they are from each other. The screenwriter, English playwright Peter Barnes, has a quirky turn of phrase, and he keeps throwing in twists and devices (like voice-overs transcribing the characters’ thoughts) that you didn’t anticipate – and often, as in the case of the voice-overs, that you would likely have predicted, wrongly, wouldn’t work. The film isn’t fluid or polished; it skips around a bit, as if the director, Mike Newell, were feeling his way through it. This tentativeness enhances a viewer’s enjoyment; you experience the movie as a series of delightful small discoveries.

The opening scenes are a little ragged. London is drenched in rain as the film begins, and Newell underscores the discomfort of Lottie Wilkins (Josie Lawrence), married to a frugal prig named Mellersh (Alfred Molina), by gluing his camera to Molina’s gargoyle facial features. Happily, there are good omens early on. Lawrence has an endearing way of popping off like a string of firecrackers, and Miranda Richardson, who plays Rose Arbuthnot, whom Lottie convinces to rent the castle, San Salvatore, with her, is mysteriously muted and pleasing here. Rose’s husband, Frederick, who pens popular novels she finds scandalous – compulsively, I’d say desperately, Christian, she says things like “No one should write a book God wouldn’t want to read” – is Jim Broadbent, who plays the adulterous author as a merry rouĂ© with a riotous habit of making trumpet sounds with his mouth. Michael Kitchen shows up as the shortsighted romantic George Briggs, who lets the castle to Lottie and Rose. Polly Walker – who has Lulu bangs, soft-green almond eyes, and a purr that rustles out through absurdly expressive lips – is Lady Caroline Dester, who joins the other ladies because, she claims, she’s dying to escape the social whirl she can’t help being the center of at home in London. (Rose doesn’t realize that Frederick is one of Lady Caroline’s suitors.) And – miracle of miracles – Mrs. Fisher, the stiff-necked, cantankerous widow who makes a fourth for their party, is played by Joan Plowright, who can create a whole character in a few strokes. At the beginning Plowright reminds you of Edith Evans’s classic turn as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest; then, as Mrs. Fisher loosens up and pulls herself out of her past (where she lived surrounded by literary celebrities), her acting acquires a tender bloom and becomes something close to sublime.

The Italian setting brings out the best in everyone. Rex Maidment’s photography is textured, with nighttime scenes that look as if he’d shot them on a cloth backdrop, under a blueish-white globe of a lovers’ moon. Lottie and Rose’s carriage ride to the castle in the soaked darkness is something out of a fairy tale: a spider’s web glistens and a tree glimmers silver-white in the misty half-light. And there are graceful, improbable images like Miranda Richardson’s Rose reclining by the water, unbothered by an iguana inching across her hair. You can’t guess exactly where Barnes’s script is going – or, if you do, how he’s going to get there, since he takes the most convoluted, woodsy paths. Audiences who take the trip with these four Englishwomen must be grateful.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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