'The Aspern Papers': Film Review

More lifeless than its namesake's long-dead body.
1/11/2019

Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays a snooping biographer in Julien Landais' Henry James adaptation.

Henry James' esteemed 1888 story The Aspern Papers has inspired many adaptations, from operas to radio dramas to films in multiple languages. One of the most famous was a 1959 stage version by Michael Redgrave, who also starred in it; Redgrave's daughter Vanessa appeared in a 1984 revival of the play, and now returns in a different role for Julien Landais' film of the Venice-set drama — with her daughter Joely Richardson playing her old part. The Redgrave clan can't be blamed for the badness of this movie, which feels like being buried in a chest with the musty papers its protagonist seeks. Perhaps someday Richardson, the movie's brightest point, will take another crack at things, playing her mother's part with a better filmmaker at the helm.

In his feature directing debut, Landais appears to equate stiff expressionlessness with seething intellectual passion: From his lead actor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, he elicits a performance in which James' language is as dead as 131-year-old words can be. The mannequin-like performance (in a raspy, distracting Bostonian accent) would be the closing argument for any film buff arguing that Meyers owes his career solely to his chiseled fashion-model looks.

Meyers plays Morton Vint, a literary biographer (unnamed in James' book) obsessed with the Romantic poet Jeffery Aspern, who died decades ago but is revered not just as "one of the greatest poets" but the "most genial" and "most handsome" as well. If this glowing recommendation doesn't inspire us to share Vint's longing for the dead man, Landais offers plentiful flashbacks to his love life — MOS softcore, accompanied by rhapsodic piano music, that are what Skin-emax would have looked like if its execs were virginal Brit-Lit scholars.

Believing that Aspern's onetime lover Juliana Bordereau (Redgrave) has a trove of intimate letters from him that he simply must read, Vint goes to her, lying about his identity and intent. Meeting the standoffish woman in her sepulchral Venice estate, he claims to want to rent a room so that he can grow flowers in the house's abandoned garden. Suspicious, she asks for an exorbitant sum; he agrees immediately.

Bordereau has her own ulterior motives: She nudges the young man into spending time with her niece Tina (Richardson), who has given up contact with the outside world to care for her. Richardson initially plays Tina as painfully formal, but her eyes soon brighten, lending some emotional mystery to a tale that should already have had plenty of it. While Vint goes leadenly about his detective work, Tina warms toward helping him, balancing her familial duty against the possibility of love.

Though filmed in Venice and executive produced by James Ivory, the picture feels like a very distant relation to the transporting period pieces Ivory once made with Ismail Merchant and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala — films in which no actor ever seemed unsure what the words he was speaking meant, and no viewer failed to share the passions onscreen. Passion is spoken of and clumsily envisioned in The Aspern Papers, but not a drop of it is felt.

Production companies: Summerstorm Entertainment, Princeps Films, Cohen Media Group
Distributor: Cohen Media Group
Cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson
Director: Julien Landais
Screenwriters: Jean Pavans, Julien Landais, Hannah Bhuiya
Producers: Gabriela Bacher, Julien Landais
Executive producers: Charles S. Cohen, James Ivory
Director of photography: Philippe Guilbert
Production designer: Livia Borgognoni
Costume designer: Birgit Hutter
Editor: Hansjorg Weissbrich
Composer: Vincent Carlo
Casting director: Celestia Fox

Rated R, 90 minutes