Based on Henry James’ 1888 novella about a dead poet’s love letters, and starring two members of the Redgrave clan, “The Aspern Papers” might have been a suspenseful, romantic jewel of a literary drama. But the movie, opening Friday at the Opera Plaza, unfortunately contains more pedigree than passion, and its stellar actresses can’t make up for a dull leading man and shaky storytelling.
This latest adaptation of James’ story, which has already inspired a hefty handful of big- and small-screen films and stage productions, is directed and cowritten by feature-film newcomer Julien Landais. A few unfortunate flashback sequences aside, he and cowriters Jean Pavans and Hannah Bhuiya have adapted the novella faithfully. They’ve also included plenty of the author’s original wording.
The setting is late-1800s Venice. The style one might describe as low-budget Merchant Ivory.
James’ nameless narrator is now Morton Vint (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a literary historian obsessed with decades-dead Romantic poet Jeffrey Aspern. Determined to obtain the letters Aspern wrote to his now-elderly lover Juliana Bordereau (Vanessa Redgrave), Morton appears at the dilapidated palace where Juliana lives reclusively with her repressed middle-aged niece, Miss Tina (Joely Richardson). Posing as a lodger interested in the estate’s garden, he rents a room.
Knowing that Juliana, who views him as a prying scoundrel, won’t let him near the letters, he charms the emotionally deprived Miss Tina into sympathizing with him.
A triangle forms among the characters, and Miss Tina is forced to decide between her aunt and her romantically tinged companionship with Morton.
The actresses’ psychologically complex portrayals are riveting.
Redgrave, playing the more colorful Juliana, adds needed juice to the drama while also giving her character crucial nuance. When Morton behaves particularly egregiously, she becomes a terrifying, fiery-eyed force when scolding him.
Richardson’s Miss Tina is immensely embraceable as she slowly takes charge of her life; she makes her character’s small triumphs exquisite.
Regardless of whether their real-life mother-daughter relationship is the reason, Redgrave and Richardson are superbly convincing as two women who know each other inside-out. (The Redgrave family’s connection to “The Aspern Papers,” which includes a 1984 Olivier Award-winning performance by Redgrave, in the Miss Tina role, is, itself, a story.)
Sadly, however, Morton dominates the drama, and as played by Meyers, under Landais’ direction, he’s a flat-sounding, expressionless bore, with no moral conflict (or any other potentially compelling feeling.)
Landais’ attempt to explore the Juliana-Aspern relationship with flashbacks featuring a young Juliana and the poet in erotic mode, sometimes joined by a “second Romantic poet,” conveys all the passion of a cosmetics ad, and cheapens the mystery surrounding Juliana’s past.
In the end, the psychological suspense and romantic intrigue barely register. The movie’s a frustrating missed opportunity.
The Aspern Papers
Starring: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Joely Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave
Written by: Julien Landais, Jean Pavans, Hannah Bhuiya
Directed by: Julien Landais
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes