(Directed by Julien Landais) (2018)
“…So Percy Shelley, his wife Mary and their friend Edward Trelawny indulged in a little Venetian ménage à trois…” No, start again.
“Shelley washes up from the Golfo dei poeti, in the deep blue Tyrrhenian Sea, where his wife finds a portrait and a satchel of early drafts“…This won’t do.
“Henry James was bedazzled by European sophistication and scared of its vestiges in formidable and incorruptible women, so one day he decided to revamp Madame Merle and Isabel Archer within a literary mystery of elegant design, where the papers of debauched dead poet Jeffrey Aspern would be pursued in extremely tasteful surroundings.” Okay, we rather like that.
(…But then he found that a nouvelle such as he had done would make an inadequate, ineffectual film, and thereby became demented.)
Alas, yes, whilst this picture is very Merchant-Ivory pretty, with Venice’s gardens, palazzos and watery by-ways featuring heavily, to the swells and swoons of, inter alia, Tristan und Isolde (a very Richardson effort!), it doesn’t seem to hang together very well.
We didn’t mind the playing: Vanessa Redgrave, as Mrs Bordereau, was aptly pugnacious, sharp and suspicious; Joely Richardson as her daughter was coy, a-tad-past-winsome, vague and yet wily; everyone else was dressed beautifully and mooned about in a statuesque manner.
We did not even mind (too much) the weird playing (and accent) of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in the Jamesian role of literary detective, though we wondered if that was tobacco he constantly puffed or something stronger. James, after all, is wordy and arch, and so was this. Yet with the crucial additions of dull sluggishness, some of the strangest plotting and mise en scène imaginable, and an abject failure to point-out anything which might excite the vaguest interest in Aspern, his decadence, or his quill-scratched tottings.