A great number of the reviews of James Ivory’s The City of Your Final Destination—even the positive ones—put forth the idea that the film is probably “irrelevant,” that the whole rarefied world in which Ivory’s films tend to take place is itself irrelevant. Setting aside the fact that the use of the terms “relevant” and “irrelevant” have become such lazy critical buzzwords that they themselves are irrelevant, it seems to me that this assessment says more about us than it does about the world of James Ivory. That we have no time for a classically crafted film about erudite, literate, well-spoken characters with layered inner conflicts in an intriguing, evocative location strikes me as our loss.
To be perfectly blunt, the films of James Ivory—up to this one, all made with his late partner Ismail Merchant—are rarely my preferred viewing. With some notable exceptions, they tend to be a little constrained for my taste. I generally admire them, without actually liking them. But there are exceptions and this is one of them, which surprised me. I wasn’t looking forward to it and had put off seeing it for days. The film follows a young college professor, Omar Razaghi (Omar Metwally, Rendition), who goes to Uruguay to secure permission to write an authorized biography from the family of a reclusive writer who committed suicide. The story wasn’t grabbing me. But the film did. I was immediately caught up in the characters and the hothouse setting.
The late Jules Gund was one of those writers whose entire literary reputation rests on one book, with the rest filled in by the mystery of reclusiveness, the tantalizing prospect of the possibility of another work—and finally his suicide. Omar sees—or more to the point, his fiancée Deirdre (Alexandra Maria Lara,The Reader) sees—an authorized biography of Gund as the obvious next step to climb in the ladder of academia. When Gund’s family refuses an initial request for permission, it’s decided—mostly be Deirdre—that Omar will travel to the family’s isolated home in Uruguay to try and persuade them.
Arriving unannounced at the family’s somewhat decaying but still impressive home, Omar finds himself taken in by Arden (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Gund’s mistress, mostly on the strength of the fact that there’s nowhere else for him to go. But it might also be—just a little—because the family members are so bored with each other that even an uninvited, unwelcome guest is a treat. Gund’s widow, Caroline (Laura Linney), operates on much the same basis, while Gund’s brother, Adam (Anthony Hopkins), is openly delighted. But then Adam—more or less a hanger-on who lives on the estate with his much younger lover, Pete (Hiroyuki Sanada, Speed Racer)—is the one person who welcomes the idea of a biography because it can only increase royalties from his brother’s book.
What follows is a superbly orchestrated, very understated game with and among the various parties—one that is complicated by the arrival of Deirdre, whom nobody likes, an assessment that might include Omar (and not just because he is rather smitten with Arden). The interplay is very complex, with a layer of “civilized” behavior and a keeping up of appearances barely covering the resentments, entanglements and even petty warfare just beneath the surface. The film, in fact, comes close to greatness in its painterly compositions, literate dialogue and believable characterizations. I think it just misses the mark because Omar Metwally simply isn’t a strong enough actor to hold the screen against Hopkins (here at the top of his game), Linney and Gainsbourg. He certainly doesn’t sink the film, but he does keep portions of it from soaring as they needed to.
Metwally’s performance—or more properly his lack of presence—is a downside, but there are so many upsides that I strongly recommend The City of Your Final Destination. It’s gorgeous to look at. It has literate, well-spoken people. It has marvelously sensitive performances from Hopkins and Sanada. And nothing explodes, there are no flatulence gags and no anthropomorphic animals—those might be reason enough by themselves. But be quick—the movie leaves the big screen come Friday. Rated PG-13 for a brief sexual situation with partial nudity.