Omar (Omar Metwally)desperately needs to write the biography of author Jules Gund if he wants to hang on to his academic post. In order to do this, he will have to secure the cooperation of the reclusive author’s surviving family: his wife (Laura Linney), his mistress (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and his brother (Anthony Hopkins). Pressured by his girlfriend to make something of himself, Omar heads off to Uruguay and essentially invites himself into the Gund residence, an isolated mansion in a state of genteel decay. Hopkins and Gansbourg are quick to agree to the project, but Linney resists, and Omar is gradually entangled in the family’s complicated web of relationships, while drifting into an affair with Gainsbourg.
I haven’t read Peter Cameron’s novel which which the film is based, so I can’t say whether this story’s vision of academic life is the same as the book’s, but I will say that what we have here is rather bizarre. Yes, there is some truth to the old “publish or perish” saw, but Omar’s desperate career straights are ludicrous. So the film starts off with a shaky premise, and is further saddled with a distinctly callow protagonist. Though he is clearly supposed to be a rather weak figure, he is so difficult to care for that the film has a void at its centre. As for Linney, Hopkins and Gainsbourg, these are people who could make a recital of the phone book interesting, and their time on the screen is compelling, even if the film itself isn’t quite.
The picture is nice, but not quite as luxuriously gorgeous as one frequently encounters with Merchant-Ivory. The palette is rather more naturalistic this time around, at times rather muted. There is a little bit of grain, but nothing particularly off-putting. The aspect ratio is 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. Overall, this is a good-looking transfer; it simply won’t knock anyone’s socks off.
The sound is good, but not perfect. The 5.1 surround misses a number of opportunities to create a convincing environment. Meanwhile, the looped quality of the dialogue is quite apparent, and it does distort a little bit. In the grand scheme of things, these flaws fade into the background, but they are there.
Commentary Track: This isn’t a full commentary. Rather, James Ivory offers his thoughts for a selection of scenes, amounting to 25:46 of the film’s total running time. He’s a pleasant speaker, and the feature is informative enough. It just isn’t the full monty.
“Sorting It Out at Ocho Rios”: (19:51) A solid behind-the-scenes feature, a bit more substantial than most.
The glory days of the Merchant-Ivory name do seem to be in the past, but this is still a handsome production filled with strong actors.