`American' is yet another masterpiece

Review: Masterpiece Theatre's American Collection follows its first offering with a fine adaptation of James' novel.

January 03, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Masterpiece Theatre, which opened its new American Collection series so stylishly in October with "Cora Unashamed," scores again tonight with its second production, Henry James' "The American."

The novel, published in 1877, tells of the clash between Old and New World values when Christopher Newman (Mathew Modine), a 19th-century "new man" who has amassed a fortune selling washtubs and building railroads in California, comes to Paris to experience its culture and find a wife.

As he innocently explains his trip to a duchess at an elegant dinner party, "I'm here for the great history, the paintings, the cathedrals. Maybe, if I get lucky, I'll find a good woman and marry her."

The duchess, who's at least a couple of decades older than Newman, has something else on her mind: "Oh, you do disappoint," she says. "You need to find something more uplifting than to go stumbling around some old cathedral. Like a touch of depravity. This city's quite good for depravity."

"Excuse me?" he says.

"You are young, rich and handsome, and all you want is a wife? My dear man, you might as well have me."

Her proposition hangs heavy in the air as chamber music delicately floats over the background chatter. Newman looks away with a smile of sudden recognition and surprise worthy of an ingenue.

But there is nothing shy or retiring about Newman once he spies Claire de Cintre (Aisling O'Sullivan), a beautiful young widow descended from ancient French nobility - a caste that, even in the late 19th century, marries only within its own ranks, as depleted as the blood line might be. With near-total ignorance of the Parisian rules of the game and a straightforwardness ever so American, Newman sets his cap for Claire.

But what he finds on his first visit to the funereal de Cintre manse is Madame de Bellgarde (Diana Rigg), a despotic, ruthless champion of the old order who makes Lady Macbeth seem like a pussycat. Madame de Bellgarde has already poisoned her husband and arranged one marriage for Claire to a titled monster. No upstart American - no matter how many fortunes he's made - is going to join her family.

O'Sullivan is positively luminous with her white-white skin set off by all the black she continues to wear, despite the fact that her hated husband died years ago. Modine is a pleasant surprise in terms of the nuance of character he shows in scenes such as the one with the duchess. Rigg is riveting as cold-heartedness incarnate, whether it is whispering into her dying husband's ear, "I never loved you," or handing her terrified daughter over as bride to a man known for his depravity.

But, as impressive as the acting is, what truly distinguishes this production are the directing and photography. There's a scene featuring Newman, Claire de Cintre and two of her brothers boating on a lily pond that dazzles like an Impressionist painting come to life. The use of darkness and light in connection with Madame de Bellgarde and Newman, respectively, is done with a sensibility reminiscent of Hitchcock.

"The American" is an important novel that helped establish James as one of our foremost chroniclers of our national character. Masterpiece Theatre's version should help establish its American Collection as a source for the same sort of style and insight in a television age.

`The American', When: Tonight at 9

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 22)

In brief: A richly textured, finely acted adaptation of the Henry James novel

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