Review: The Bostonians
Not every Merchant-Ivory film is a visually lush period drama based on novels by prestigious writers like E. M. Forster and Henry James, but the most memorable ones are, including The Europeans (1979), The Bostonians (1984), A Room with a View (1985), Maurice (1987), and Howards End (1992). Another in this vein is The Remains of the Day (1993), based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.
All these films were produced by Ismail Merchant, an Indian Muslim, and directed by his gay partner James Ivory, an American Protestant. With the exception of Maurice, they were adapted for the screen by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a German Jew married to an Indian Parsi.
Yet for all the intersectional diversity points of their creators, there is something “problematic” about these films, for they feed on a deep nostalgia for the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, characterized by overwhelming whiteness, patriarchy, sexual repression, and heteronormativity. Of course, all the characters struggle against this world in the name of an old-fashioned, white, and Eurocentric liberalism that is also problematic these days. But it is impossible to overlook that the world they are struggling against is far more attractive than the world they ended up making for us.
The archetypal Merchant-Ivory film appeals to pretty much the same people who love Downton Abbey: overwhelmingly white, predominantly female, disproportionately gay, and very liberal. The average Merchant-Ivory viewer loves to imagine himself or herself as rich, beautifully dressed, and at home in the most glamorous locales, all while being terribly oppressed but also enlightened and virtuous. It is a kind of porn for the NPR/BBC4 set: middle-aged, middlebrow, middle managers in our neoliberal Left-wing oligarchy. But race-conscious whites can also enjoy the nostalgia if they are willing to bracket out the propaganda.
Or, in the case of The Bostonians, they don’t have to, for through some strange twist of fate, this is one of the most anti-liberal, anti-feminist movies I have ever seen. Starring Vanessa Redgrave, Christopher Reeve, Madeleine Potter, and Jessica Tandy, The Bostonians is based on Henry James’ 1886 novel of the same name, which is a satire of the Eastern Liberal Establishment circa 1875–76 set primarily in Boston but with forays to Cambridge, New York City, and Martha’s Vineyard—pretty much their same haunts today.
It is a world of bossy women and low-testosterone men. All the characters are either rich or the professionals, courtiers, and charlatans who feed off the rich. Mesmerism, spiritualism, homeopathy, and feminism are the current rages in their salons.
The Bostonians focuses on a circle of wealthy suffragettes. Now that blacks have been emancipated and the South put to the sword, feminism is the next great progressive crusade. The main suffragettes are the elderly Miss Birdseye (Jessica Tandy), a gentle soul who lives in a word of
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