DVD Review: “Enchanted April”

Though a few days overdue by the calendar, Enchanted April (1992) has finally made it to DVD. And, boy, did I need it. The movie tells us that what women want is a getaway to the Italian Riviera. But you don’t need to be a member of the fairer sex to crave that. Plopped down in front of the tube on another dreary day in Brooklyn, I could relate to its protagonist, rain-soaked Lottie Wilkins (Josie Lawrence), who decides she’s had enough of London fog and needs some of that Mediterranean wisteria and sunshine she’s read about in a newspaper ad. You go, girl.

A hotly requested title, Enchanted April has arrived just in time to make for a nice Mother’s Day gift, though it looks a little less than itself. You’d expect a movie with “Miramax Films Award-Winning Collection” embossed in gold on the box to shine as prettily as the moon in the film, particularly one that exemplifies the history of its distributor. Before its purchase by Disney and the game-changing year of 1994 and Pulp Fiction, Miramax thrived on acquisitions like Enchanted April, a BBC telefilm that aired in 1991. According to director Mike Newell’s commentary track, the English critics, bored with another 1920s-set “heritage” film, yawned. But Harvey and Bob Weinstein knew that former colonists have a bottomless appetite for old-fashioned Anglophilia. With good reviews backing it up on these shores—critics aren’t immune, either—the company really ran with the picture, as it did in those lean-and-hungry days. Miramax’s efforts propelled a modest TV movie to a sizable $13 million gross at the U.S. boxoffice and three Oscar nominations, for co-star Joan Plowright, screenwriter Peter Barnes, and costume designer Sheena Napier.

It may have been those origins that tripped it up on DVD. Not necessarily intended for theatrical release, the movie, shot on location in Portofino, Genoa, and Liguria, may never have had the ravishing, Merchant-Ivory beauty that A Room with a View (1985), a fellow traveler from England to Italy, possessed. But the drab interiors and not-quite-blooming outdoor textures here, sprinkled with occasionally heavy spritzes of grain, suggest a faded photograph. More compromisingly, the picture appears overmatted at the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, where 1.75 or 1.66 might have sufficed. Those Oscar-nominated heads and hats are continually being cut off.

Then again, Newell, joined by producer Ann Scott for a rambling talk that is the disc’s only special feature, said that no one looked at it with an eye toward posterity at the time. The opportunity to direct it came at an ebb tide in his career and personal finances, when another project had fallen through. Since the reversal of fortune it brought about, Newell has directed, among other credits, Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Donnie Brasco (1997), and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), all in the same anonymous but interested style. As ample compensation for the lack of personality in Newell’s best work, you do get a respect for actors, script, and craft, all of that in evidence in Enchanted April.

Elizabeth von Arnim’s novel The Enchanted April (1922) is an enduring example of chick lit. It survived a flop 1925 Broadway theatrical adaptation and a forgotten 1935 film to flicker through the decades, when a new edition caught Scott’s eye and led to the movie; in 2003 a different version had a more successful run on Broadway, receiving Tony nominations for Jayne Atkinson’s Lottie and best play. (Molly Ringwald was in the cast, playing Rose, Lottie’s prim, pious best friend, who is portrayed in the film by Miranda Richardson.) I figure screenwriter Barnes, best known for the rambunctious play and film The Ruling Class (1972) with Peter O’Toole, for some of the dashes of humor that streak through, while giving von Arnim’s story a graceful pace.

The U.K. critics got it wrong. Enchanted April couldn’t be more anti-“heritage.” Lottie and Rose can’t wait to escape damp England. Nor, when a month-long rental on an Italian castle comes up, can the two women who agree to share the lease, the stern Mrs. Fisher (Plowright) and the aristocratic flapper Caroline (Polly Walker). It’s not just the weather they’re escaping, it’s men: Lottie, her status-obsessed, oblivious husband Mellorsh (Alfred Molina, who looks very stuffed-shirt and Mellorsh-y), and Rose, her husband, Frederick (Jim Broadbent, a future addition to the Miramax award-winning collection with his Oscar for the 2001 film Iris), who scandalizes her with the “dirty” books he writes under a pen name. Caroline is just bored with the money-grubbing men in her circle. Mrs. Fisher, meanwhile, lives in a world of books written by men (she boasts of her command of “Dante’s Italian, taught to me by Browning”) and arranges her portion of the castle with pictures of her favorite authors, but late in life quietly yearns for more direct experience of the world. The quartet of chicks in this flick is impressive: Lawrence, then and now a staple on the Beeb, Richardson, in a softer performance than usual, Plowright, whose position as Miramax’s grande dame was usurped by Judi Dench, and Walker, before she grew fangs and turned to villainy on shows like Rome, harmonize, in what Lottie calls “a tub of love.”

Along with the complications presented by room arrangements, old plumbing, and the unexpected arrival of the two husbands (who have their own itches to scratch with the seductive, but shrewd, Caroline), Enchanted April has a gently spiritual side brought out by the native charms of Italy, which can refresh the soul of any repressed, harassed urbanite. I hadn’t been when I first saw the movie on its release, but I had it in mind the two times I’ve been able to visit. Less artificial than, say, Diane Lane finding herself in Under the Tuscan Sun (2003), and a movie strong enough to withstand an iffy transfer, Enchanted April sends a vibe that I hope you get a chance to pick up on for yourself. See Italy, and live.

Buy Enchanted April (Miramax) at Amazon.

For more movie reviews and essays, visit Between Productions.

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