Catnip for the culture set, the producer/director team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory have fashioned a wildly successful career out of staid, high-toned film adaptations of such literary worthies as E.M. Forster, Henry James, and Kazuo Ishiguro. When the material is choice, the acting is engaged, and the simmering passions that bubble just below the surface are held in delicate balance, the result is the modest pleasures of films like Howard’s End. When the source is less accomplished and the romantic drama tepid to the point of non-engagement, the upshot is such lukewarm fare as The City of your Final Destination.
Either way, and even before Merchant’s 2005 death, the moment for the duo’s literate brand of arthouse award-favorites has long since passed, audiences and Oscar voters alike demanding more visceral pleasures from their cinema. Ivory’s first directorial effort since the death of his producing partner, City adapts Peter Cameron’s 2002 novel about a literature professor traveling to an isolated Uruguayan estate to convince the family of a dead novelist to authorize a proposed biography. Goaded on by his strong-willed lover Deirdre (Alexandra Maria Lara), Omar (Omar Metwally) travels to the family’s lost-in-time country house, where the inhabitants have little to do except tend bees, paint copies of old master canvases, and ignore the outside world. Striking a deal with the novelist’s sympathetic brother, an aging recluse (Anthony Hopkins) who wants to secure a better life for his younger boyfriend, charming the late writer’s lover (Charlotte Gainsbourg) with whom he himself falls in love, Omar finds his biggest challenge in securing authorization from Caroline (Laura Linney), the deceased’s defiant widow, at least until a near death experience causes the professor to rethink his priorities.
Drawing on a neutral palate of browns, whites, and grays, DP Javier Aguirresarobe frames the action in a series of handsome, unfussy arrangements that matches the languished mood of the piece. When emotions and incidents do erupt, they register as notably muted, while the film’s last-minute romantic fulfillment comes across as tentative and unconvincing, the consummation insufficiently prepared by the cursory development of the central relationship. A modest showcase for the film’s three actresses (the pert, assertive Lara, the steely Linney, and the sweetly tentative Gainsbourg), City is notable mostly for a handful of moments in which the perfunctory direction gives way to something approaching a sense of engagement. Whether these moments appear as a brassy outburst (Lara dressing down a cabbie who tries to overcharge her), a tender detail (Gainsbourg touching Metwally’s cheek as he lies in a coma, triggering a subtle and involuntary muscle response), or a trenchant observation (Hopkins chiding Lara’s icy professor: “You read too many books. Or perhaps you don’t read books any more. You just read criticism of books”), they temporarily lift Ivory’s film out of the realm of the serenely banal, a position from which the Remains of the Day director otherwise has considerable trouble disentangling this latest in his long line of demure chamber pieces.