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Where Angels Fear to Tread (1991)

After a rich Edwardian widow impulsively marries a handsome but poor Tuscan dentist and dies in childbirth, her English in-laws try to gain custody of the baby.


Charles Sturridge


E.M. Forster (based on the novel by), Tim Sullivan (screenplay) | 3 more credits »

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Cast overview, first billed only:
Rupert Graves ... Philip Herriton
Helen Mirren ... Lilia Herriton
Helena Bonham Carter ... Caroline Abbott
Barbara Jefford ... Mrs. Herriton
Judy Davis ... Harriet Herriton
Thomas Wheatley Thomas Wheatley ... Mr. Kingcroft
Sophie Kullmann Sophie Kullmann ... Irma
Vass Anderson Vass Anderson ... Mr. Abbott
Sylvia Barter Sylvia Barter ... Mrs. Theobald
Eileen Davies ... Ethel
Siria Betti Siria Betti ... Hotel-Keeper
Giovanni Guidelli ... Gino Carella
Anna Lelio Anna Lelio ... Perfetta
Luca Lazzareschi ... Spiridione
Sergio Falasca Sergio Falasca ... Carriage Driver


Around 1906, the widow Lilia Herriton meets a young man when she visits Italy and marries him. The man is only a dentist without a good name, and Lilia's relatives are clearly unhappy with her choice. Lilia dies while giving birth to a son, and two relatives travel to Italy to take care of of the baby, expecting no trouble from the father. Written by Mattias Thuresson

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Drama | Romance

Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)

Rated PG for sensuality, violence and theme | See all certifications »





English | Italian

Release Date:

28 February 1992 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

E.M. Forster's Where Angels Fear to Tread See more »

Filming Locations:

Cuna, Siena, Tuscany, Italy See more »


Box Office

Gross USA:

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Company Credits

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Technical Specs

Sound Mix:



Color (Eastmancolor)
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Did You Know?


The movie and source novel's title is derived from stanza in the poem "An Essay on Criticism" (1709) by Alexander Pope. It reads: "Nay, fly to Altars; there they'll talk you dead; For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread". See more »


In a scene outside on the veranda in Gino's house in Italy, Lilia (Helen Mirren) has her back to the view of the countryside. At one point, when the camera is on her, a white van can be seen driving along the road in the distance. It is clearly a 1990s-era vehicle, moving much faster than automobiles of the era could have. See more »


Mrs. Herriton: [Speaking about Italy] It may be filled with churches and beautiful pictures, but you can only judge a country by its men.
See more »


Lucia di Lammermoor
Music by Gaetano Donizetti (as Donizetti)
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User Reviews

Fake Ivory
6 January 2006 | by JamesHitchcockSee all my reviews

It is strange how an author can suddenly become flavour of the decade in the cinema after his or her works have been neglected by film-makers for years. Before the 1990s there had only ever been one feature film based on a Jane Austen novel, the 1940 version of "Pride and Prejudice". Since 1995 there have been filmed versions of "Sense and Sensibility", "Mansfield Park", "Persuasion", two of "Emma" and, most recently, another "Pride and Prejudice".

Before the great Austen cycle, there was a great E.M. Forster cycle. The first film ever based on one of his novels was David Lean's "A Passage to India" in 1984. Over the next eight years, filmed versions were made of four of his other five novels. (I wonder why "The Longest Journey", held by some to be Forster's most brilliant work, was neglected. Come to that, I wonder when the Jane Austen cycle is going to get round to "Northanger Abbey"). Of those four films, three ("A Room with a View", "Maurice" and "Howard's End") were made by the Merchant Ivory partnership. "Where Angels Fear to Tread" was the one exception.

Like "A Room with a View", the film deals with the British abroad in Italy. Lilia Herriton, a well-to-do English widow on holiday, meets, falls in love with and marries Gino, a handsome young Italian many years her junior. Her late husband's family are aghast at this development, partly because Gino is a foreigner and partly because they regard him as their social inferior. (Gino's father is a dentist, but it would seem that a hundred years ago this profession had less social prestige than it would today). Their misgivings are to some extent justified, because Gino proves to be a jealous, violent and unfaithful husband. When Lilia dies in childbirth her brother-in-law Philip and his sister Harriet decide to go to Italy to "rescue" the child and return it to England. They quickly realise, however, that for all his faults as a husband Gino is a devoted father to his son and will not give him up willingly. Harriet therefore decides to kidnap the boy, with disastrous results.

Most of Forster's novels deal with characters who either live abroad or who find themselves in circumstances outside their normal social environment, and it has been suggested that this theme of the "stranger in a strange land" is a reflection of his own situation as a homosexual forced by the laws and conventions of his times to hide his true nature. The English characters in "Where Angels Fear to Tread" react to their situation in a foreign land in different ways. The most relaxed is Philip, a sensitive intellectual who loves the country, although often more for its artistic and architectural heritage than for its people. Harriet, by contrast, is an obstinately prejudiced Englishwoman, who hates being abroad and behaves in the most arrogant, high-handed manner towards the Italians. Lilia is in an ambiguous position. There is a suggestion that her wealth all comes from her late husband who married beneath himself socially and that his family therefore tend to look down on her. She is at first enchanted by Italy, but this might be because she is treated there like a rich signora rather than like a poor relation. Her later difficulties in her marriage may be partly due to her inability to adapt to the differences between Italian and English customs.

Most of the leading actors had already appeared in other Forster adaptations- Judy Davis in "A Passage to India", Rupert Graves in "A Room with a View" and "Maurice" and Helena Bonham Carter in "A Room with a View". (She would also go on to appear in "Howard's End" the following year). The best performance, however, in my view was from Helen Mirren as Lilia. She was possibly slightly too old for the role, but nevertheless brought to it a touching pathos and tragic dignity.

Unfortunately, the film as a whole is a disappointment. There is too much that is never explained, especially why the Herritons are so obsessed by the idea of bringing Lilia's baby back to England when neither she nor the child is a blood-relation of theirs. Even more mysterious is the parallel mission to Italy undertaken by Lilia's friend Caroline Abbott. Another mystery occurs at the end of the film after Harriet's disastrous kidnapping attempt has resulted in the child's death. We learn that Gino has lied at the inquest in order to save them from the authorities, but we never learn exactly what he has said or why he should have behaved in such a generous way towards two people whom he has every reason to hate.

The other acting contributions, apart from Mirren's, are not distinguished. Helena Bonham Carter, who was good in "A Room with a View" and even better in "Howard's End" is wasted here as Caroline. Rupert Graves's Philip is weak, and Giovanni Guidelli's Gino is too much the eccentric foreigner. Although Forster clearly intended some satire at the expense of the snobbery and arrogance of the British abroad, Judy Davis plays Harriet as too unsympathetic, a sour-faced harridan who comes across as a pantomime villainess rather than a credible individual.

The film is made in a similar "heritage" style to the other Forster adaptations, with great attention to period detail and some loving photography of the Italian landscapes, but is nevertheless dull and lifeless. Like another reviewer I felt that this book might have worked better as a film if the Merchant Ivory team, who succeeded so well with "A Room with a View" and "Howard's End" had made it. Charles Sturridge's film just seems like an inferior imitation of their work, a piece of fake Ivory. 5/10

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