The Bostonians (1984)


Both an emotionally complex and puzzling adaptation of Henry James' controversial novel about Victorian feminism, The Bostonians is a gorgeously filmed epic about the nature of a woman's soul. Basil Ransome (Christoper Reeve) is a Southern gentleman of far right leaning ideals who believes women are inferior and foolish. He's come to Boston by the invitation of a distant cousin, Olive Chancellor (Vanessa Redgrave), in the hopes he'll marry her younger sister. Olive is a man-hating feminist of the early ideals but is unable to speak in public. They both attend a feminist meeting where each are individually touched by the main speaker, a young woman with an extraordinary gift. Verena Tarrant (Madeline Potter) is able to bring the room to tears with her dramatic speech on the necessity for equal treatment of women. The only person not touched is Dr. Prance (Linda Hunt), a female physician who doesn't care for politics one way or the other.


Olive invites Verena to visit her the following afternoon in the hopes of acquainting herself with such a promising, eloquent speaker. Verena could do a great deal for their cause, but Olive is convinced her heart isn't fully in it. She wants to take the girl into her instruction and out of the hands of Verena's father, a mesmerist. But while Olive battles to strengthen the young woman's feelings against men, Basil wants to reform her into an ordinary housewife. His pursuit of her brings the two families to dramatic heads and forces Verena into an impossible situation. Her care for the older woman has grown immensely and while attracted to men, she speaks out against the institution of marriage as repression of women. She wants the right to vote and attend Harvard, while Basil is from the old school that would force her into "staying at home" and having children. He's not the only man vying for her heart... Henry Burrage (Jon Van Ness) is determined not only to introduce her to New York society, but also make her an ideal husband.


This unlikely combination turns out a very interesting but also mildly disturbing film. Olive is conflicted with her emotions... part of her is attracted to Verena. Her attentions waver between motherly to those of a jealous lover. This is where a slight lesbian undercurrent comes into play. Viewers are left to decide if it's there at all, or just a figment of modern-day over imaginations contrasting with innocent female affection. In several instances I was bothered by it; with others it seemed less pervasive. If nothing else, The Bostonians shows us a very real struggle between traditional and modern ideals. Verena is as bold and feminist as you can get, carefully cultivated by Olive's hatred of men; but Basil is an arrogant chauvinist... yet you like them both. The ending therefore is a bit ambiguous, leaving the viewer with conflicting emotions. Feminists in general have responded very strongly to this film; they either love it or hate it. The arguments are very valid and the speeches impressive. This film has some beautiful dialogue.


Woven into the power struggle between the sexes is a subtle romance and several carefully crafted side plots. Instead of being flat and uninteresting, even minor characters have personality. Some of them are corrupt, others merely innocent, but each has a role to play in the eventual outcome. For the most part the film is clean except for the aforementioned lesbian undercurrents, which come from several scenes in which Olive kisses or embraces Verena. They dance and stand together on the beach, arms locked, often flying into one another's arms. After having a nightmare that Verena has drowned, Olive returns to the house and lavishes kisses on her ward, one on the lips. There is conversation about the different roles of the sexes. Basil says he wants to convince Verena it's much more noble to give yourself to a man rather than a cause. He cuts his foot on a shell in the shallows and they tend the wound. There's one spoken profanity and another muffled. Verena's father is a mesmerist and talks of séances, "provoking the spirit" and performs an eerie trance over his daughter before her first speaking engagement.


Altogether the film would be recommendable if it weren't for the uneasy relationship between the main female players. If nothing else, the production is gorgeously costumed and beautifully acted. Vanessa Redgrave was up for an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of conflicted, emotionally damaged, possessive Olive Chancellor. I was also very impressed with Christopher Redgrave. Basil oozes just the right amount of Stonewall Jackson and Rhett Butler in a seductive Southern drawl. The supporting cast is fabulous as well but the real gem is young Madeleine Potter, who not only acts well but is fun to look at. Her innocent blue eyes, wild red hair, and ashen completion give a wonderful sense of immaturity and innocence to Verena. It's not altogether commendable, but definitely thought-provoking.

Charity's Novels!

Get caught up on The Tudor Throne series before the final installment this summer!