Where Angels Fear to Tread (1991)
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
I am not a fan of E.M. Forster. In fact, I have never read a book of his, nor seen a film adaptation of his works, that I have been fond of, but this one comes closer than most. It's a comedy under the guise of a drama, or a tragedy under the guise of a comedy, but whatever it is, it seems to hit most of the right notes. Still, if you're looking for Jane Austen endings, you will find it lacking.
On an impromptu visit to Italy with her dear friend Caroline Abbott (Helena Bonham Carter), the recently widowed Lilia Herriton (Helen Mirren) soon engages her family in scandal when she meets a handsome young Italian half her age, and insists upon marrying him. Her in-laws dispatch her brother in law Philip (Rupert Graves) in order to talk her out of it or pay off her lover, but he is too late and arrives to find them already wed. There is nothing for it but to accept fate and leave her to her newfound happiness. However, Lilia soon learns that all is not rose petals in her life as an Italian wife. Her husband shows little interest for returning home at normal hours, keeps a mistress on the side, and becomes violently angry if she in any way contradicts his authority, even when it comes to something as simple as taking a walk in the country.
It's not long before the hapless Lilia delivers a child and dies, leaving her husband Gino (Giovanni Guidelli) as the sole guardian. When the Herrington family in London learn of these circumstances, the matriarch of the family insists that her children go and fetch her grandson, so that he might be raised in a proper English home. Philip, his peckish older sister Harriet (Judy Davis), and Caroline are soon engaged in a quarrel over who will take care of the child, with the mysterious and mildly sinister Gino lurking in the background. But as fate would have it, disaster waits just around the bend.
There are some aspects of the production that truly shine, and it carries on the tradition of Merchant Ivory without the brand name. The scenes are appropriately atmospheric and it manages to retain a decent sense of humor despite the overall tragic conclusions. The acting from everyone involved is appropriately adequate, but when Mirren's character departs, the rest of the film seems a bit banal. Her impassioned, wild-hearted heroine was really the only staple saving it from mediocrity, and leaves Davis to carry on the burden, which she does with her idealistic portrayal of a narrow-minded, rather quarrelsome aunt. The nice thing is that it's impossible to figure out early on where the story is going to go next, and so there's a nice element of surprise in each twist and turn, but the characters are not fleshed out nearly as much as they need to be.
For example, Gino comes across early on as a very sweet, mild-mannered boy. Midway through the marriage he becomes overly demanding and even physically violent toward his wife. Perhaps he is merely a master manipulator, since he shows none of these tendencies later on, or maybe it was just poor plot development, but the audience could have done with a little more closure than they were given. That being said, there's not much wrong with the film content-wise. A couple of mild profanities and thematic elements sneak in, including a carriage accident, a man shoving his wife against a wall and shaking her, and two deaths. Lilia and Gino playfully kiss and start to undress one another later on in their marriage, but the camera pans out before much skin is shown. It's an interesting film and certainly one I would not mind seeing again, but could have been stronger with a little more enthusiasm from the cast.