'Angels Fear to Tread' pleasing going from comedy to tragedy

April 03, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

It's getting so you can't see the trees for the Forster. On screen, he's everywhere, the crafty old, turn-of-the-century British novelist, in this film and in the soon to be released "Howards End." And, in the last few years, we've seen "A Room With A View," "Maurice" and David Lean's "A Passage to India." He's bigger than Stephen King!

It's easy to see why. E.M. Forster is immensely witty in a British way but his primary concern -- played out here and in his other works -- is appealing to modern filmmakers: it's always some variation on the conflict between stifling social convention versus a crying need for love and its messier bunkmate, sex. In other words, the neurotic vs. the erotic.

"Where Angels Fear to Tread" deploys this theme on a broad scale, first for comic and then for tragic effect. Furthermore, it evokes Forster's sense of geography as destiny, in which England always stands for neurotic narrowness and Italy for sunny eros.

In any event, the snooty and repressed Herritons are scandalized when they learn the widow of their dead son and brother has decided, on a trip to Tuscany to marry a young Italian. Phillip (Rupert Graves) is dispatched to explain why such apostasy simply can't be done, but he's horrified when he learns from sister-in-law Lilia (Helen Mirren) that she's already tied the knot. In fact, from the bloom on Lilia's glowing face and her young and beautiful husband Gino's swagger, it's evident that a lot of knots have been untied in the bedroom.

The Herritons are outraged at the very idea of s-x, and director Charles Sturridge draws a lot of barbed humor from their huffings and puffings back in their London townhouse, where they are routinely beastly to their servants as they address each other in clipped, monosyllabic stupidity. Lilia, meanwhile, despairs when she learns that Gino is incapable of fidelity and expects her to be a good Italian wife; he swiftly gets her pregnant. When she dies in childbirth, once again the Herritons are scandalized and once again Phillip is sent out; this time to retrieve the baby (who is no blood relative to them). They feel it is their duty to take the child from his father so that he may be

brought up "right." This time Phillip's stern older sister, Harriet, (Judy Davis) is dispatched by mother (the imperious Barbara Jefford) to ride herd on the young man.

Harriet is quite a number: a borderline hysteric, mindful of and crushed by the authority her mother has invested in her, her own sexual instincts so mulched by the mulcher of family and duty, she's evolved into both a bully and a coward. She's a true black comic masterpiece who is capable of standing up in an opera and screaming at the cheering audience: "Shut up, you ridiculous babies!" And she's even more enraged by Phillip's attentions to Caroline Abbott (Helena Bonham Carter), a vicar's daughter who had originally traveled to Italy with Lilia, and feels responsible for the outcome. Yet, there's an evil edge to her frenzy; it will compel her to an awful act.

Sturridge, who directed Evelyn Waugh's equally cruel "A Handful of Dust" as well as the widely praised "Brideshead Revisited" for British and American public television, does a wonderful job of keeping the story hurtling ahead. He's also got a keen visual sense.

But most of all, "Where Angels Fear to Tread" is a feast of acting. By now, each of these lads and lasses must have Forster down cold; they're virtually a Forster rep company: Bonham Carter was in "Room With a View" and will be in "Howards End"; Davis was in "A Passage to India" and Graves was in both "A Room With a View" and "Maurice." It's the deepest of pleasures to sit back and watch these savvy pros navigate the acerbic dialogue and the clotted plotting with such suppleness and clarity.

'Where Angels Fear to Tread'

Starring Rupert Graves and Judy Davis.

Directed by Charles Sturridge.

PG-rated.

*** 1/2

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