A tricky path to nav­i­gate

Red­grave and Richard­son shine in an un­even adap­ta­tion of ‘Aspern Pa­pers’

Los Angeles Times - - AT THE MOVIES - KEN­NETH TURAN FILM CRITIC ken­[email protected]­times.com Twit­ter: @Ken­nethTu­ran

“The Aspern Pa­pers” have been some­thing of a fam­ily busi­ness for the Red­grave act­ing clan for more than half a cen­tury, and the new film ver­sion con­tin­ues that tra­di­tion with a range of re­sults.

It all started in 1959, when Vanessa’s fa­ther, Michael, did a stage adap­ta­tion of the 1888 Henry James novella about a deeply ob­ses­sive Amer­i­can’s quest for never-pub­lished let­ters of a long dead Ro­man­tic poet, let­ters in the pos­ses­sion of a now el­derly Bri­tish woman liv­ing in Venice who was once his lover.

Some 25 years later, Vanessa won an Olivier Award for play­ing the aged woman’s niece in a London pro­duc­tion of the play.

Now, 35 years af­ter that, Red­grave, at 81, is old enough to play that el­derly party with con­vic­tion and elan, and her daugh­ter Joely Richard­son takes on the role of the niece.

It is a treat to see these women share the screen (they’ve done it be­fore, in 1985’s “Wetherby” and even on an episode of TV’s “Nip/ Tuck”) and a plea­sure to re­port that they are both ex­cel­lent. About the rest of the film, how­ever, the news is not so good.

Though its lit­er­ary plot wouldn’t seem to be ideal for the big screen, James’ work has, in fact, been made into a film four times pre­vi­ously, start­ing with a lurid 1947 pro­duc­tion called “The Lost Mo­ment” with Agnes Moore­head and Susan Hay­ward in the roles Red­grave and Richard­son take on here.

Noth­ing daunted, French di­rec­tor Julien Landais has tack­led the book for his fea­ture de­but af­ter mak­ing a hand­ful of shorts and do­ing a decade of com­mer­cials and mu­sic videos.

Co-writ­ing the script with Jean Pa­vans and Han­nah Bhuiya, Landais has made a ver­sion of “Aspern” that is too of­ten un­cer­tain and un­con­vinc­ing de­spite the good work of his fe­male stars. And when the ac­tresses leave the screen and the film ven­tures into ill-ad­vised flash­back ter­ri­tory, things get shakier still.

The Aspern of the ti­tle is a cel­e­brated writer (ap­par­ently based on Shel­ley) named Jeffrey Aspern who, we are told in voiceover, was “the most bril­liant poet of his day, and the most ge­nial and hand­some of men.”

Telling us this is Mor­ton Vint, a cal­low cocky Amer­i­can raggedly played by Ir­ish ac­tor Jonathan Rhys Mey­ers, who has done ex­cel­lent work since com­ing to notice in Todd Haynes’ “Vel­vet Gold­mine” but seems mis­cast here.

The world’s reign­ing ex­pert on Aspern as well as an ar­ro­gant fop much given to dressing gowns and open­necked white shirts, Vint has come to Venice to track down Ju­liana Bordereau (Red­grave), once Aspern’s muse and lover and the woman he be­lieves has a trove of Aspern’s let­ters in her pos­ses­sion.

Be­cause Ju­liana is known to re­sist peo­ple like him, Vint re­sorts to a ruse. He uses a fake name and asks to rent rooms in her enor­mous Vene­tian palazzo on the du­bi­ous premise that he loves the hor­ti­cul­tural po­ten­tial of her de­crepit gar­den.

As a woman of very great age, next door to de­crepit her­self, Red­grave is ef­fort­lessly com­mand­ing as this most iron-willed of ma­tri­archs.

Wheeled around the palazzo in a mo­bile chair, dressed only in black ex­cept for a green eye shade that makes her look like the world’s old­est black­jack dealer, this is a woman who takes al­most spite­ful de­light in say­ing just what she thinks no mat­ter the con­se­quences.

Re­gret­tably, “The Aspern Pa­pers” also flash­backs to Ju­liana in her youth (Alice Aufray), when she made merry with Aspern (Jon Kor­ta­jarena) and an­other young man re­ferred to in the cred­its only as The Ro­man­tic Poet (Ni­co­las Hau). To say that these se­quences play like arty Euro­pean com­mer­cials is to give those ad­ver­tis­ing spots a bad name.

Back in the present day, Ju­liana lives with Miss Tina, her niece, played by Richard­son with con­sid­er­able sub­tlety, al­low­ing the char­ac­ter to start out hes­i­tant and re­pressed but grad­u­ally de­velop her own agenda.

James’ theme of ab­hor­rence to­ward the cult of per­son­al­ity comes through here de­spite the stodgy film mak­ing, as when Ju­liana asks Vint, “Do you think it’s right to rake up the past? The truth be­longs to God.” It’s a strong mo­ment in a film that does not have enough of them.

Co­hen Me­dia Group

JONATHAN RHYS MEY­ERS plays an am­bi­tious edi­tor and Joely Richard­son por­trays spin­ster niece Miss Tina in “The Aspern Pa­pers.”

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