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I must admit, I couldn't make out what this film was trying to be ...
but I did like it.
Was it about Jane Austen's bit of juvenilia, Sir Charles Grandison, and theatrical productions of it?
Was it about Ariadne and her struggles with herself and her need to become a star?
Was it about Katya and her other life as a smoky bar dive singer?
Was it about Liliana and Pierre and the feelings they still had for themselves, years after they had been bedfellows?
Was it about theatre technique and the insecurities of those who live by greasepaint alone?
It is a slow, ponderous film, with some memorable sequences amongst the dull interludes; I like to call the good sequences the bits of gold in the sand!
Jane Austen's play, from what we see here, is hopeless, and I am sure those who paid big money at auction for it were kicking themselves afterwards - but as a starting point for a movie, Merchant Ivory have done a good job with their fresh new setting.
Robert Powell, fresh from Jesus of Nazareth, is good as Pierre but isn't quite charismatic enough to carry off his Svengali-like role. Anne Baxter is excellent in her final film role as the determined and devious Liliana, her appearance in the film is one of quiet dignity and of true star quality, and she can be funny too. Baxter's daughter Katrina Hodiak impresses as moody and mixed-up Katya and gets to perform a few lovely songs (one wonders why she didn't do more movies ... I was also struck by her strong resemblance to her father, 40s star John Hodiak). And Sean Young, in one of her earliest roles as Ariadne, is OK if you get past the big hair, but you would never have believed from this that she would become a star in films to come.
'Jane Austen in Manhattan' takes a fresh spin on an old author but does it by making a dark, complicated (and often yawn-inducing) movie.
However ... for those nuggets of gold, and they are there ... I would happily watch it again.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a curious movie: not unpleasant, and only slightly boring, but
having so little definition that by the end it seems itself to have
forgotten how it began.
For me the best thing in it was its faithful observation of rehearsal spaces and the things that go on in them; but the accuracy of the staging is not followed through in the shooting, and I doubt whether the sense of place will be communicated to viewers to whom the backstage is alien ground. More importantly to the movie, the believability of the locations does not extend to their inhabitants. Actors, and especially young actors, can seldom play actors well, and the ones in this movie flatter themselves by leaving out the two characteristics other people see as most typical of their calling: egocentricity and competitiveness. These are confined to the director-managers of their companies; the actors themselves are as pure and devoted as religious novitiates.
The main actor is portrayed by Sean Young--though portrayal it can hardly be called, since it is less a performance than an appearance--yet for me she was nonetheless the second best thing in the movie. This was her first, before she acquired glamour or a screen presence, or had had done to herself whatever actresses have done; but to me her attractiveness here exceeded the benefits of the foregoing. The early scenes show her, for probably the only time in her career, as she must have been at school, softish of face and body, occasionally awkward in movement; an eager, sincere Vassar girl, and, taking all in all, Awfully Cute. I realize this does not properly pertain to the movie, but it seems to lie within its emotional frame of reference.
Young is at the crux, indeed is the crux, of one of the two major conflicts in the movie: she has forsaken her marriage to join the director's "commune," and her husband is forever trying to persuade her to come back. The conflict becomes obscured later on as the husband, whom the director initially prohibited Young from seeing altogether, eventually begins hanging around the theatre, and is allowed to; I was unclear whether or not this was deliberate--whether the director wavers in his authority; whether it resides only in the consent of the governed; or whether the movie simply forgot what it had said.
Nor could I quite comprehend the idea at the back of the story; questions about it kept recurring to me through the movie. The idea is that the manuscript of a Jane Austen play is purchased at auction, for production, by the backers of a theatre company; they spend upwards of $50,000 on it. Would they have had to buy it to do the play? Would it not have been known of earlier, and the text printed? Or if it were a recent discovery--where would it have come from? Austen's papers were never a mystery; how would a play of hers have gone undiscovered? And is it long enough for a full production? Is it even a play? Is it not rather a libretto for an opera? It is called a libretto in the credits. There also it is ascribed not to Austen alone but to Austen and Samuel Richardson--started by her and finished by him? In that case it could not possibly have been unknown. In the end the movie makes it clear that the production is to be funded by a grant, and therefore the manuscript was bought with grant monies--to the tune of $50,000?
Luckily, most of these questions are irrelevant to the story; but there is another aspect of the idea that baffled me. From the title I gather the characters are intended as modern counterparts of those in Austen, whom I have lately been re-reading, and so far the only character I have encountered who is in any way like any of those in the movie is Henry Crawford, the rake in "Mansfield Park," who resembles Robert Powell's director in being womanizing and self-serving.; yet even here the differences are more substantial than the likenesses. Crawford is independently wealthy; Powell lives off his acolytes. Crawford is a dilettante; Powell is, arguably, a serious artist. Crawford improves in character by forming a sincere attachment but is too used to pursuing his own pleasure to stick to it; Powell has had a good thing going with a fellow director and turned his back on it in the pursuit of his artistic principles.
It is true that in the end Powell acts contrarily to this, as he ties off the movie's second major conflict--the one between him and this ex-lover, now his rival--but this is another instance of the movie's seeming to forget where it has been before. Having lost the Austen property and with it the grant that depended on it, Powell tries to rekindle the romance--and on his way out makes off with a piece of silver. This is glib, and not in keeping with his character, imperfect as that is.
Likewise, at his preview performance for the grant donors, on which the issuance or continuance of the grant hinges, Powell's rival is present; with his authoritarian temperament, would he not have barred her? As things turn out, the performance makes her but undoes him--and, really, the movie, too. His rendition of the play is absurdist, abstractionist, extratextual--all of which it would be--but also ineptly executed--as it would not be, if it accorded with what the movie has shown of the rehearsals for it. There Powell consistently stimulated the actors, always with something clearly in mind, and--apart from Young--they were disciplined and skillful. In the performance they have become incompetent; and this final-reel switch, like those mentioned earlier, makes it look as if the movie had been started by one set of hands and finished by another, in a rush, with no looking back. As I say, it's a curiosity.
This very long1980 movie isn't the worst Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala movie
(that would be "Jefferson in Paris") but is numbingly dull even to an
admirer of many of their movies. I'd assign blame mostly to Jhabvala's
screenplay about two radically different troupes vying for the chance
to première a (real) recently discovered play written at age twelve by
Jane Austen. From what we see of it, Austen wasn't much of a playwright
at age 12 (who is?!).
Jhabvala imagines a charismatic experimentalist Svengali (Robert Powell) pitted against a socially well-connected aging actress whom he had used and abandoned earlier (Anne Baxter in her last big-screen role paying off the sins of Eve Harrington?). She wants to stage an operatic version. It defies plausibility that the experimentalist actors have operatic voices, but the audience has to simply accept that, while trying to care about any of the characters struggling to survive whimsical arts patronage. I could muster a bit of sympathy for Baxter, and more for the very handsome spurned husband played by Kurt Johnson, but couldn't care less about the "star" played by Sean Young (in her first screen role) or about which absurd production got supported and mounted off- Broadway.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I am usually offended, retroactively offended by Ivory - Jhabvala
films. They have a quiet, deep consistency that draws respect the same
way a cathedral does. But the uncomplicated emotional links and the
sentimental world in which they exist gets to me, and taints dreams for
Good news. Here is that same hushed god of relationships and presentation, but it is turned on the process of film-making itself. This isn't the complex, multiply nested structure of "Vanya on 42nd Street," but it is similar.
In the film, the main arc is two "films" competing with each other to exist. One is the sort of slick, attractive think that is now synonymous with Merchant-Ivory. The other is something more intuitive, emotional, experimental. These two film realities become characters in themselves, resolving in just the same way we would later see the characters in "Remains."
The "slick" one is pretty and connects with presentation values we can understand. It is backed by the establishment that finances "art," and thus wins in the contest. Along the way, the worst features of both are highlighted.
The "gritty one" requires obedience to a cult, destruction of marriages, ruining of souls and penury. But it transcends and makes one whole. The nicety nice one is a matter of effete conspiracy and Brahman tastes. Needless to say, as we follow writer Jhabvala and her two collaborators, the nicety nice wins, as it does here. And at the same cost.
The actors who provide surrogates for these two are lovers who have fallen out. When together, they confuse performance with life. There is a third way, shown by the lost husband of Sean Young's character. His acting has no pretension to art; it is neither ambitious nor pretty, simply entertaining.
The device around which this revolves the script for the competing plays is a lost manuscript by Jane Austen. As if everything I have mentioned so far is not a sufficient fold of life on the film, this film comes from the acquisition of that same manuscript.
You will recall that Austen could be said to have shaped the modern long form novel, based on her own fold: the parallel stories of people who are seriously motivated by the urges of the time overlain with observations on how arbitrary and silly those are. While Merchant, Ivory and Jhabvala are smart enough to know the costs of what they do, they decide anyway. Silly works.
Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.
First off I want to say that this is more of a drama with comedic
The comedy is very subtle and dry. Of course, I'm not very familiar with
Austen's work, so I'm certain that some of the jokes were completely over
This film is too flawed for me to recommend, but I wouldn't dismiss it either-you know the type. It is somewhat pretentious and at times incomprehensible. The pace is very slow; a trait which here works equally for and against it I think.
What I did like was that, for a drama/comedy, it has a very weird vibe, almost dark at times. Or maybe it was just me.
It all adds up to a film that was alternatingly boring and intriguing. I say only check this out if you like seeing something different and don't mind a slow pace. I would be interested in seeing what a Jane Austen fan thinks of this film.
It seems that a manuscript of Jane Austen's play "Sir Charles Grandison"
in fact discovered fairly recently. I have not read it, but I cannot
believe that Ivory-Merchant-Jhabvala could really have understood it.
Austen's young writings are brilliantly comic, but if there is anything
funny in `Jane Austen in Manhattan' I missed it.
The film could have been a good satirical comedy. Maybe parts of it are funny to the Manhattan in crowd of the off-off-Broadway theatre, but you will have to know the participants in that activity a lot better than I do to enjoy this movie.
The central figure seems to be that played by Sean Young. James Ivory does not bring out any aspect of competence or charm this young woman may have, thus making the contest for her participation in the two competing efforts to produce a play pointless.
Having acquired the rights to a play penned by Jane Austen during her childhood, an avant-garde theatre director attempts to do justice to Austen's words and "bring her up-to-date" while a former associate tries to convince his actors to perform the play more traditionally in this little seen Merchant-Ivory film. Robert Powell, fresh from 'Harlequin' (where he played an equally hypnotic character), is solid as the avant-garde director in question who believes that "we all live in clichés" and that his fey vision is faithful. Anne Baxter in her last big screen performance is also well cast as his former associate. It is not, however, always interesting to watch them argue source material fidelity and with much talk and limited atmosphere and action, 'Jane Austen in Manhattan' has found a reputation as Merchant-Ivory's nadir. Such an assessment may be a little harsh, however, this is very much one of those films where the story behind it is more fascinating than the movie itself. Apparently James Ivory acquired the film rights to Austen's play without having even read it. Upon reading the play and finding it insubstantial for motion picture (Austen was, of course, very young when she wrote it), Ivory almost passed it up until Ruth Prawer Jhabvala suggested making a film about those who wish to and attempt to perform the play - not unlike 'Adaptation.', to which the film sometimes has been compared. This in turn renders 'Jane Austen in Manhattan' one of Merchant-Ivory's most intricate efforts, and if a failure, it is certainly an ambitious one.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Boring and annoying are two adjectives that spring to mind regarding
this film. The only aspect that salvaged it from being completely
unbearable was the presence of Anne Baxter.
Until she appeared on screen it all just seemed to be a series of disjointed scenes bound only by a shared pretentiousness. And then, boom, there she was and suddenly the electromagnetic field changed.
It was interesting to observe how powerful the presence of a single person can be. Because, in this case, Baxter brought a coherence to the film. With her appearance, the different elements seemed to fall into place. At least to a degree.
I tried to figure out what it was about her that seemed to make this happen. Was it "star" quality? Was it a gravitas that came from her years of experience? Or did she, as opposed to the other actors here, perhaps resist the "direction" that was being given and merely follow her own course as far as interpreting her character. I don't know. I couldn't figure it out.
The only other actor who created a real character as opposed to a caricature was Kurt Johnson who played Victor. And Sean Young was quite good.
The others were giant clusters of affectations. Robert Powell who played Pierre was especially annoying. Granted his character was supposed to be so. But he was not interesting annoying. Just annoying annoying.
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