Reviewed by: Charity Bishop
Starring: Madeleine Stowe, Bruce Greenwood, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Gretchen Mol, Jennifer Tilly, William Hootkins, Dina Merrill, James Cromwell | Directed by: Alfonso Arau | Produced by: Jonas Bauer, Gene Kirkwood, Norman Stephens, Guido de Angelis, Ted Hartley, Delia Fine, John G. Phelan, Doris Schwartz | Written by: Orson Welles (screenplay for 1942 version), from a novel by Booth Tarkington | Distributor: A&E Network
Most items of literature throughout time have focused on a hero’s struggle against evil in some way or form. This is not the case with “The Magnificent Ambersons,” which is in itself a tragic tale of a wanton villain whose choices ultimately bring his family’s downfall. His name is George Minafer, and we first glimpse him coldly greeting guests at a winter ball at his father’s luxurious country house. Into his acquaintance comes an old flame of his mother’s, Eugene Morgan. The sparks between the two show that something of interest still remains between them.
But George is caught up by Eugene’s charming daughter Lucy. He aggressively insists on nearly every dance for the evening and pushes her into accepting his offer of a ride the following day. She is for the moment awestruck by him and accepts, but says wantonly afterward, “You don’t find him domineering and pushy, do you, Father?” Still, she puts up with him and the two quarrel on and off while a romance is pursued. In the meantime, George has grown an increasing aversion to her father. Adored and overly spoiled by his mother, he possessively desires to keep her all to himself.
Even with the death of his father, he turns a cold shoulder to Eugene while pressing Lucy for an engagement. The truth of his mother’s past at last comes to the light. She was attracted to Eugene in her youth, and were it not for a moment of absurdity on his part, embarrassing himself while drunk, she would have undoubtedly married him. Still, she has never been unfaithful to her husband, even to the last, and when a slight hope for a second chance appears on the horizon, she takes it, regardless of her sister Fanny’s concerns for wagging tongues.
The Ambersons have always been wealthy, but times are changing and Eugene is on the forefront of technology with his automobile company. What George candidly calls a “nuisance” is making Eugene Morgan a great deal of money. In the meantime, the Ambersons are losing their edge in town. They once ruled the district with a fine hand, making millions off the land and property, but the town’s boundaries are shifting and land in the old part of town is becoming less desirable. With George’s determination never to enter a profession, the future of the Amberson-Minafer family seems strangely uncertain… as do the two budding romances in progress.
Visually the production is delightful. A&E is known for its lavish sets and award-winning costuming (responsible for films like “Victoria and Albert,” “Pride and Prejudice,” and “Lorna Doone”), and “The Magnificent Ambersons” is no exception. Filmed in Ireland, the film has a surprisingly American feel to the old town and surrounding countryside. The homes are all luxurious and breathtaking, the costuming ideal, the hairstyles appropriate. And even though they’ve taken some liberties by placing more modern dances in the earlier era, one is lost in its late-Victorian appeal. However, the damper is the seriousness of the subject, the melancholy script, and the over-acting of the lead.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers has the look that is needed to convey such a sinister character, but his portrayal of George is often abrasive and wooden. The rest of the cast plays well, but his only asset in the performance is his eyes, which makes for a cold character with whom the audience has no empathy. Throughout much of the film his character is intensely dislikable, even to the point of wanting to “hang him,” as his uncle confesses toward the end. He continuously is cruel and mercenary to his aunt Fanny, teasing her about being a spinster. He treats Lucy as if she’s a possession. (Fortunately she does have sense and won’t stand for it.)
He is rude and unfeeling toward Eugene and manipulates his mother, who always sees him as an “angel,” a point which is brought up by Fanny. “You only see in your son,” she confides with curious insight, “what you want to see.” In truth, Fanny is the most profoundly wise character in the film, even with all her silliness. In the end, after three inerrant tragedies that leave the film on a somber note, he is eventually redeemed… but it’s a long, cold journey that takes us there.
Content issues are surprisingly limited, but strangely manipulative with little hints here and there of impropriety. Many viewers will be put off with the affectionate relationship between mother and son, which comes to a few touches of the lips in passing. George undresses while his mother is in the room (just down to his long johns). Fanny becomes hysterical at one point and her nephew pins her to the floor to calm her down; he winds up lying on top of her for an uncomfortable length of time. An overweight man’s bare chest is seen as he bathes; in this same scene, brief backside nudity of George is also shown. There are a few instances of mild profanity.
If the film has few flaws visually, the flaws then lie in the script itself. It’s a sad, almost depressing story of the fall of The Magnificent Ambersons from royal-like status to common folk. It shows the ways in which one life can ruin and upset so many others, both inadvertently and deliberately. I was touched that in the ending scene Eugene forgave George for keeping him and Isabel apart. But when all is said and done, the film has a bad aura to it. It left me in a mingled state of mind, part pitying the Ambersons, part loathing the redeemed hero/villain, and part wishing, as all will, that it could have ended differently.