Many ignorant critics have lately waxed enthusiastic over what remains a questionable kinship between E.M. Forster's "Italian" novels -- the early Where Angels Fear to Tread and later A Room with A View, both adapted to film within the past five years, and directed, respectively, by Charles Sturridge and James Ivory -- and Elizabeth von Arnim's Enchanted April. As the latter has recently been filmed and is now appearing in the U.S., so it follows that our indefatigable army of Philistine daily-paper reviewers should find a Mediterranean setting proof enough to impose their faux literary speculations on an even less-informed public. Were it not so desperate, it would actually be quite funny. (It isn't.)
To be sure, Arnim and Forster were contemporaries (the former, born Mary Annette Beauchamp, was Forster's senior by eight years), but their creative sensibilities and concerns were no more akin to one another than Margaret Mitchell and Ernest Hemingway. To suggest or affirm a deeper bond between the novelists -- or for that matter, the films -- is to publicly parade a level of stupidity matching the vice president's off-the-cuff snafus.
Enchanted April is a story of women's ability to conform to the constraining hardships of Edwardian society through perseverance aided by a little magic. Four women from disparate factions in British society agree to plan a holiday on the fourth month of 1922. Each has her innnermost reasons for escape -- Lottie Wilkins (Josie Lawrence) and Rose Arbuthnot (Miranda Richardson), without consulting their surpassingly indifferent husbands (Alfred Molina and Jim Broadbent), arrange the getaway and elicit the participation of Mrs. Fisher, a stiff-lipped literary dowager (Joan Plowright), and Lady Caroline Dester, a stylish, ruling-class sophisticate (Polly Walker), to help pay for the expense at an Italian castle inherited and owned by the myopic fop, George Briggs (Michael Kitchen). They leave the drizzly despondency of London for what is literally a breath of fresh air.
Then upon arrival, a spirit of generosity and compassion hovers over the women and soon inhabits them. Lottie, inspired by the preternaturally resplendent seascape around the castle, invites her husband to visit. Rose follows suit, and her husband also arrives, but to see Lady Caroline. The profound disappointment of each woman with her situation reaches a point of resolution in Italy, then mysteriously vanishes. There is a process of healing, and an apotheosis. When it is time to return, the men and women have discovered an everlasting source of youth: the bond of love, whether it be romantic or merely human.
The literary model, for those who care to pursue it accurately, isn't Forster but Shakespeare. And therein lies some of the loveliness of Enchanted April, that Arnim could have bathed the all-consuming postwar tristesse in such a benevolently Shakespearean light. The novel and the film both pay homage to Twelfth Night and especially to Shakespeare's dying peroration, The Tempest. It is unquestionably sentimental, but for the integrity and sure-footedness of the directing (Mike Newell, of the darkly memorable Dance With a Stranger) and acting, which transcends artifice.
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Joan Plowright manages some delightful comic turns as the incorrigibly inflexible Mrs. Fisher. Some of her lines are delivered with aplomb, as in the opening interview with the two younger women about the castle. Mrs. Fisher points her cane to pictures of literati she's known over the course of a long life, and Lottie asks her if she knew Keats. With a face that could stun a circus elephant, the old woman responds, "No. I didn't know Keats. And I didn't know Shakespeare or Chaucer, either." (The Irish poet died in 1821.) Unlike American actors, whose flavor-of-the-month approach to culture diminishes their ability to successfully capture the nuances and look of a period, the women (especially the stunning Polly Walker) are magnificent.
But perhaps the protagonist and star of Enchanted April is the municipality of Portofino, where much of the book was written and where Newell has filmed this beautifully urbane feel-good movie. The rocky precipices and pine-laden inclines surrounding the Castello Brown are immeasurably captivating. The sea sparkles. The sun bestows a forgiving light. Near the start of Twelfth Night, Viola asks the sea captain, "What country, friends, is this?" The question is, Illyria or Elysium? For Shakespeare the pun was simple: they are one and the same. Arnim was similarly aware of Mediterranean magic, and believed in it as Lottie does in the book. And, ever so briefly, makes us believers, too.
Directed by Mike Newell; written by Peter Barnes; with Miranda Richardson, Josie Lawrence, Polly Walker, Joan Plowright, Alfred Molina, and Michael Kitchen.