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The Bostonians (1984)

Not Rated | | Drama, Romance | 5 October 1984 (UK)
A Boston feminist and a conservative Southern lawyer contend for the heart and mind of a beautiful and bright girl unsure of her future.



(novel), (screenplay)
Nominated for 2 Oscars. Another 1 win & 5 nominations. See more awards »
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Cast overview, first billed only:
Madeleine Potter ...
Mrs. Burrage
Dr. Tarrant
Barbara Bryne ...
Dr. Prance
Charles McCaughan ...
Music Hall Policeman
Nancy New ...
Henry Burrage (as John Van Ness Philip)
Mr. Pardon
Peter Bogyo ...
Mr. Gracie
Martha Farrar ...
Mrs, Farrinder
Dusty Maxwell ...
Newton Tarrant


19th-century Boston woman dedicated to the suffrage movement, meets a faith healer's daughter, a Mississippi lawyer also has eyes for the young woman. Written by Joyce Kavitsky <Kavitsky@erols.com>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


A BEAUTIFUL FILM . . . An intimate and exquisite probe of the feminist heart. [Australia Theatrical]


Drama | Romance


Not Rated | See all certifications »





Release Date:

5 October 1984 (UK)  »

Also Known As:

A bostoniak  »

Company Credits

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Technical Specs

Sound Mix:


Aspect Ratio:

1.78 : 1
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Did You Know?


Christopher Reeve said of this film in his autobiography "Still Me" (1998): "[Producer] Ismail [Merchant] could only afford to pay me $100,000, less than a tenth of my established price at the time. I insisted that the money was not an issue, that this was the kind of work I ought to be doing, but my agent told me, 'If you do that picture with those wandering minstrels, it will be one foot in the grave of your career'. ... I cheerfully ignored their advice". See more »


The invitation Basil receives to hear Verena give an address is for Wednesday, June 1, 1876. In 1876, June 1 fell on a Thursday. See more »


Dr. Prance: It's a pity you can't say "damn".
Olive Chancellor: Yes.
See more »


Featured in From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995) See more »

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User Reviews

Not one of the best Merchant-Ivory films or Henry James adaptations, but while not for everyone there's still a lot to admire
8 August 2015 | by (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

The Bostonians on the whole is not among the best Merchant-Ivory films, like A Room with a View, Howard's End and especially The Remains of the Day, nor is it anywhere near The Innocents, The Wings of the Dove and particularly The Heiress as among the best Henry James adaptations. However, while it has its problems it is not a bad film and does laudably adapting a difficult work (even for an author that is notoriously difficult to adapt like James).

Are there flaws here? Yes, there are. The changed ending is far too melodramatic and clumsily written as a (possible) attempt to make it accessible to modern audiences (maybe?), undermining any intellectual sensibility that the story or James beforehand show. While Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's screenplay fares very credibly mostly it doesn't come off completely successfully, the savage humour of the book is very toned down (in contrast to the somewhat lack of subtlety, pretty overt actually, in the writing of the Olive and Verena relationship, loved the tension between the two though) and sometimes absent which gives the film a bland feel sometimes, the characters are still very interesting and complex but lack the philosophical depth of the book and that final speech is so cornball and misplaced.

Merchant-Ivory films always did have deliberate pacing, but more than made up for it with slightly more involving drama and characterisation and more consistent script-writing than seen here, sometimes The Bostonians moved along at a snail's pace which made the blander, less involving dramatically sections almost interminable. And despite being devilishly handsome and with the right amount of virile masculinity Christopher Reeve seemed completely out of his depth as Ransom, throughout he is stiff and although his character is unlikeable in the first place there is very little in Reeve's performance that makes it obvious what Olive and Verena see in him.

However, there is much to admire as well. As always with a Merchant-Ivory film it is incredibly well-made, with truly luxuriant cinematography, exquisite settings and scenery and some of the most vivid costume design personally seen from a film recently. There is a beautiful music score as well that couldn't have fitted more ideally, and appropriately restrained direction from James Ivory, and while there were a few misgivings with the script Jhabvala actually adapts it very credibly. It's a very thought-provoking, elegantly written and literate script that has a good deal of emotional impact, it is not easy condensing James' very dense, wordy and actions-occurring-inside-characters'-heads prose to something cohesive for film but Jhabvala manages it with grace and intelligence on the most part. Again, pacing could have been tighter but the story is still very poignant and has a good degree of tension and emotion.

Best of all is how beautifully played it is by a very good cast, apart from Reeve. Madeleine Potter does lack allure for Verena, but plays with gentle winsomeness, intelligence and sweet charm. In the supporting roles, Linda Hunt is dependably very good, Jessica Tandy is moving in her performance and (in particular) Nancy Marchand's verbal cat-and-mouse-game helps give the film some of its tension. Along with the cinematography and costumes, one of The Bostonians' best aspects is the towering performance of Vanessa Redgrave, Olive is more sympathetically written here and Redgrave brings a real intensity and affecting dignity to the role which makes for compulsive viewing.

All in all, much to admire but also could have been better. 6/10 Bethany Cox

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