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James Ivory’s first solo venture after the death of his longtime producing partner Ismail Merchant reads like a loving salute to 49 years of Merchant Ivory filmmaking, from 1965’s “Shakespeare Wallah” to this gentle, witty tale of a young Iranian-American academic seeking permission to write the authorized biography of a Uruguayan novelist.
Completed in 2007 and only now appearing on the fest circuit, “The City of Your Final Destination” is unlikely to set the boxoffice on fire. Its appeal naturally will be to book-reading audiences who appreciate films with well-written dialogue, a tony cast (Anthony Hopkins, Laura Linney, Charlotte Gainsbourg), lush visuals and the triumph of civilized values.
Giving the sense of a journey completed is the incorporation of shots from Ivory’s first documentary “Venice: Theme and Variations,” shot in 1957, as a narrative flashback. But then, the whole film could be seen as variations on the themes that have dominated the director’s work, from his respect for literature to the tender experience of young love.
Omar (Omar Metwally) lives with his unpleasantly domineering girlfriend Deirdre (Alexandra Maria Lara) on an American college campus where they both teach. When he is turned down as official biographer of novelist Jules Gund by the deceased’s family, his teaching job is in danger. Deirdre pushes him to fly to Uruguay and persuade the Gunds to change their minds. Arriving on their sprawling country estate amid gauchos and pampas, he is taken in but made no promises.
Regular Merchant Ivory scriptwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has adapted Peter Cameron’s contemporary novel with typical Ivory tropes: Languid characters living elegantly in an international setting, where art has greater value than money but where the latter, being in slightly short supply, lazily moves the story forward. As in Ivory’s Paris-set “Le Divorce,” several different couples’ relationships are tenuously intertwined with a question of artistic inheritance — here, the rights to an authorized biography, jealously guarded by Gund’s widow Caroline (Linney).
But Caroline is not the only heir. Adam Gund (Hopkins), Jules’ brother and a gentleman of leisure who lives on the estate with his much younger lover Pete (Hiroyuki Sanada), is in favor of granting the earnest young professor authorization in hopes that the publicity will help them pay property taxes.
Finally, there is the fragile Arden (Gainsbourg), Jules’ mistress, who lives with the childless Caroline and Portia, the daughter she had by Jules. Arden, a waiflike recluse referred to at one point as an ex-hippie, seems to have no mind of her own. She tends toward Caroline’s no side but, as a tender love story blossoms with Omar, her vote changes to a yes.
None of this is strongly dramatic material, particularly since Omar could write a much more interesting unauthorized bio about Gund, given all the family skeletons he has become privy to. Plot interest flags midway through the film, along with the unwelcome reappearance of Deirdre, who interrupts Omar and Arden’s almost-there love story without adding anything to the complex equilibrium between the characters.
Metwally, who played the tortured hero in “Rendition,” is so well-heeled and fair-playing here that the happy ending, recounted offscreen, feels fully justified. Off him bounce the eccentric Gunds, given life by a witty, resigned Hopkins and a bitter, disappointed Linney, whose world-weary characters still have hidden desires to fulfill. Gainsbourg’s Arden is freshly drawn, at once gently feminine and unconventional.
Venue: Rome Film Festival (out of competition)
Production companies: Merchant Ivory Prods.
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Laura Linney, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Omar Metwally, Hiroyuki Sanada, Alexandra Maria Lara
Director: James Ivory
Screenwriter: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Based on a novel by: Peter Cameron
Producers: Paul Bradley, Pierre Proner
Director of photography: Javier Aguirresarobe
Production designer: Andrew Sanders
Music: Jorge Drexler
Costume designer: Carol Ramsay
Editor: John David Allen
Sales: Hyde Park International
No rating, 117 minutes
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