Enchanted April

Cinema Papers; Australia; April, 1993; Number 92; Brian McFarlane

"Do you know, I believe we should all behave quite differently if we lived in a warm sunny climate all the time. We shouldn't be so withdrawn and shy and difficult." So, in 1945, did Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) famously reflect in David Lean's romantic classic, Brief Encounter. Laura, of course, never gets to test her belief, misses her one chance for love and excitement, and remains at least "withdrawn and shy" in the drab respectabilities of mid-1940s provincial Britain.

This apparently random aside was one of several intersecting thoughts provoked by watching Mike Newell's Enchanted April. Newell's four main female characters - two unsatisfactorily married young women, Lottie (Josie Lawrence) and Rose (Miranda Richardson), a bored young socialite, Lady Caroline (Polly Walker), and formidable and lonely widow, Mrs Fisher (Joan Plowright) - do leave damply oppressive England and go to warm sunny Italy to share a castle for several weeks' holiday.

A lot of what happens is predictable, but the very predicability is instructive about certain English ways of thinking. There is a general loosening up of normally constrained emotions as the women respond to the sensuous beauty of the landscape and to the glamour in the air, in the quality of light. There is an intensity in the natual world that is at once charged with excitement and a source of peaceful harmony. Mrs Fisher has, she claims, learnt Italian from Browning, and this bit of name-dropping recalls what Italy meant to the Brownings - escape to a bolder landscape, a chance of health - or to Keats, who longed "for a beaker full of the warm south" and who finally fetched up in Italy.

Rose Arbuthnot (Miranda Richardson) and George Briggs (Michael Kitchen), Mike Newell's Enchanted April. What is being offered in Enchanted April is not "realism". To start with, the idea of such a castle's being available, within the means of the women, and being staffed as it is, does not strike one as very probable. Nor is this a profitable or even relevant line of enquiry, for in this film and in so many other British fictions "Italy" is less a real place than an idea. If Paris in British fiction, at least in film, usually signifies an ohh-la-la naughtiness, Italy is apt to connote a more serious liberation of the spirit, high romance rather than an illicit weekend.

E.M. Forster's repressed Englishwomen surrender to the lure of a metaphorical loosening of the stays when they venture where angels fear to tread or when they acquire a room with a view. In a moment of wishful fantasy, Laura Jesson imagines herself floating down the Grand Canal in a gondola, with the man who never becomes her lover. David Lean's other famous heroine, Jane Hudson (Katherine Hepburn) of Summer Madness (1955), is admittedly American, but her sexual timidity - and the way it melts under the glamour of Venetian skies and the less obvious charms of Renato di Rossi (Rossano Brazzi) - finds just the right mentor in her English director. In fact, it took a greater fiction-maker, Henry James (in, say, Daisy Miller or The Portrait of a Lady), to understand that the charms of Italy might be delusively corrupt and corrupting as well as liberating.

My point is that such British fictions are actually sharper and wittier and more touching when they are concerned with the facts of the damp climate, the grey streets and the inhibitions that are perceived to accompany them. (Notably, when an Italian actress, Sophia Loren, played Laura Jesson in Alan Bridges' 1974 remake of Brief Encounter, the results were disastrous. She brought not only the wrong looks but also the wrong character associations to the role and the film.) There is a reality in their representationn of English life that makes Italy look like a romantic alternative, not a real one. Other kinds of films suggest better what happens when English passion breaks through the layers of decorous restraint: one thinks of such undervalued melodramas as Blanche Fury (Marc Allegret, 1948) and So Evil My Love (Lewis Allen, 1948), for instance, or more recently, Truly, Madly, Deeply (Anthony Minghella, 1991). As for such films as A Room With A View (Jamies Ivory, 1985) and Where Angels Fear To Tread (Charles Sturridge, 1991), they are far more perceptive, more firmly rooted in the actual, when they are on the home territory. Given a whiff of Italy, their art designers and lighting cameramen are apt to surrender to the physical beauties of the place and to lose their grip on the inner human drama.

Now, Enchanted April seems to me a better film than either of the Forster adaptations referred to above, but it shares this English belief in the emotional release that Italy offers to the receptive. Like those other fictions, too, it is at its most intelligent, most alive to nuances of behaviour and relationship, when it is setting up the constrained lives of its four women in their native state. The first half of the film is fluent and witty as it lays foundations for the women's discontent - in, for instance, describing one of the women as "having the face of a disappointed Madonna".

Newell, his screenwriter (Peter Barnes), his cameraman (Rex Maidment) and his art director (Malcolm Thornton) contrive to create an enclosed world of drab browns and greys, of muted discontents, of stifled desires and unequal relationships. Lottie keeps a record book of every minute expense and tries not to notice that her husband (Alfred Molina) eats like a pig. Rose's blustering husband (Jim Broadbent) writes "suggestive" novels, flirts with and fawns over society ladies such as (to his embarrassment when he turns up in Italy) Lady Caroline, who is in turn tired of the social round and longs for a holiday with strangers. Mrs Fisher, forever dropping the names of famous but dead Victorians, wants to "sit in the sun and remember better men and better times". All of this is accomplished with great assurance, never putting a foot wrong.

The camera cuts from a slamming door to a ship's prow and finally comes to rest on the magical Italian countryside as predictably - a shutter of the castle is flung open to reveal it. This gesture prefigures the freeing up of emotion and psyches that overtakes the women as they settle to the business of living together in this little community so unlike those they've come from. "She'll soon be herself without trying", someone says of Mrs Fisher, and this is the leitmotif of the Italian sojourn for all of them. The film is seriously interested in the claims of love and liberty, of the self and others, and makes quite bold, almost didactic, use of voice-over to render the women's thoughts.

Perhaps hardline feminists will not be pleased that two of the women succumb to inviting their husbands to stay, and indeed return to England with them; or that Caroline finds romantic interest in the castle's owner (Michael Kitchen) when he visits them; or that Mrs Fisher softens into saying, "I'm tired of the dead, I want the living." However, these emotional manœuvres are executed with a respect for human compromise that makes one grateful that they end not by simply wallowing in a tourist's view of sun-drenched Italy.

There may be cliché in the films basic oppositions - England/Italy, repression/release, drabness/brightness - but perhaps this is the case with all such oppositions. I don't know Elizabeth Von Arnim's novel on which the film is based; maybe, like those other English fictions, it is at its best on its home ground. However, this modestly pleasing film seems aware of a slackening in its central section and picks itself up becomingly at the end. If there is not really reason to hope for a sustained renaissance in British cinema of the kind enjoyed at the time of Brief Encounter, this cleverly acted and directed film, along with the half-dozen British films in town recently (Michael Leigh's Riff Raff, Peter Chelsom's Hear My Song, Terrence Davies The Long Day Closes, etc.), at least gives evidence that it is not dead, that it can still offer a viable alternative to mainstream Hollywood as it did in decades long ago.

Enchanted April:
Director: Mike Newell
Producer: Anne Scott
Executive producers: Mark Shivas, Simon Relph
Associate producer: Matthew Hamilton
Scriptwriter: Peter Barnes
Director of photography: Rex Maidment
Production designer: Malcolm Thornton
Costume designer: Sheena Napier
Sound recordist: John Pritchard
Editor: Dick Allen
Composer: Richard Rodney Bennett

Lottie Wilkins: Josie Lawrence
Rose Arbuthnot: Miranda Richardson
Mrs Fisher: Joan Plowright
Lady Caroline Dester: Polly Walker
Mellersh Wilkins: Alfred Molina
Frederick Arbuthnot: Jim Broadbent
George Briggs: Michael Kitchen
Vicar: Neville Phillips
Jonathan: Stephen Beckett
Patrick: Mathew Radford

BBC Theatrical Films Production in association with Miramax Films and Greenpoint Films. 35mm, 110 mins, Uk. 1992.

Enchanted April averaged a score of 7 (out of 10) from the review panel.