In Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s adaptation of Henry James’ novel The Bostonians, a Boston feminist and a conservative southern lawyer compete in winning a young and impressionable girl’s heart and mind. (SYJ: 4/5)
Review written by FF2 Media Intern Sophia Y. Jin
This restoration of the film brings the ever-present theme of feminism to the forefronts of the audience’s minds. “Olive Chancellor” (Vanessa Redgrave) is an older woman, who is hateful towards all men. She meets “Verena Tarrant” (Madeleine Potter) during a feminist talk performance led by Verena’s fraudster father, “Dr Tarrant” (Wesley Addy). In this performance, her father acts as her puppet-master and guides her as she talks about women’s rights. Olive instantaneously falls for Verena, begging her to become friends. She even pays Verena’s father, for his daughter’s companionship. Olive, being timid and afraid, implores for her new friend to swear off men and to never marry. Verena agrees and accepts Olive as a mentor about women’s rights, and it is soon clear that the two develop what is called a ‘Boston Marriage’. This is where women found companionship in each other as most of the young and eligible men had been killed during a war.
Despite coming across as leader-like on stage, in her private life, Verena is easily influenced and is controlled by whomever she is with. In the beginning, she was her father’s puppet; the puppet strings were then transferred to Olive. However, Verena’s desire of romantic companionship is brought to light by the misogynistic “Basil Ransome” (Christopher Reeve), who makes her question her motives and strength. Basil plays the ‘hero’ figure that everyone looks for in a story. Being a charismatic character, and the actor suitably attractive, Basil’s misogynism is easily masked. There is no surprise when Olive feels betrayed and panics as he threatens her hold over Verena. Olive fears abandonment, and struggles to pluck up the courage to become independent and outwardly preach what she believes in.
Similar to fighting romantic interests or bickering divorced parents, Olive and Basil battle for Verena’s attention with conflicting beliefs. Olive is constantly preaching women’s rights to Verena. Olive’s paranoia and distrust in men wards them both off men. Basil, however, dismisses the ideals of feminism and equality for women, and continues to try and convince Verena to follow him. He advises her to not bother with this ‘nonsense’ and to marry him for the comfortable life she deserves. This could be appealing to her since it is something she is familiar with. On top of that, he is an attractive male, which gives him an advantage in persuading Verena to leave with him. It also makes the audience more understanding with regards to her indecisiveness in the film and novel. Nevertheless, this doubt questions her feminist ideals.
The revival of this film brings us back to the 80s when the film was originally made by James Ivory, echoing the age old question of equality. The excellent jobs of director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala keep Henry James’ classic novel alive and invigorating. The outstanding acting from the all-star cast keeps the viewers intrigued and engaged. It is important to question the state of equality, even in modern day. Women’s rights are still under scrutiny, and it is through our literature and arts that we can outwardly challenge these ideas.
© Sophia Y. Jin (12/18/18) FF2 Media
Photo Credits: Marie Cosindas
Top Photo: “Olive” (Vanessa Redgrave), “Verena” (Madeleine Potter), and “Basil” (Christopher Reeve)
Middle Photo: Basil Ransome
Last Photo: Olive and Verena
Does The Bostonians pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?
Yes, this whole film and novel is about feminism and hatred towards men.