The first of Merchant Ivory's triptych of Henry James adaptations (including The Bostonians in 1984 and the forthcoming The Golden Bowl), The Europeans is the story of an encounter between a family of pre-Civil War New Englanders and their European relations whose alien, sophisticated ways dazzle some family members and scandalize others.
The Baroness Eugenia Muenster (Lee Remick) arrives with her artistic and dashing brother Felix (Tim Woodward) for a transatlantic visit with their cousins, the Wentworths. The bohemian Felix is immediately taken with Gertrude Wentworth (Lisa Eichhorn), James's "innocent Sabbath-breaker," who is being courted by the earnest but tiresome Puritan suitor Mr. Brand (Norman Snow). Eugenia fixes upon the reserved and attractive Robert Acton (Robin Ellis), who is torn between his captivation with the Baroness and his distrust of her European worldliness.
The resulting conflicts and complications in the Wentworth and Acton houses come to play out James's vision of America trying to maintain her innocence by fending off European influences. The characters must somehow forge relationships and identities somewhere between the grave sobriety of Puritan acseticism, its "thousand different ways to be dreary," and the perceived amoral or outright immoral decadence of the Continent.
The widely acclaimed performances, led by Remick's complex Eugenia, lend subtle sympathy to the characters. They are enabled by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's screenplay, which never betrays James's wit or delicate command of social subtext. Ivory gives a sense of lyrical simplicity to his scenes in the New England interiors of the period, but perhaps most striking are his exteriors, which capture Henry James's sense of ambivalent wonder at the New World. The expatriate author of The Europeans was fascinated by the New England landscape, which he called "Arcadian" and "idyllic" but also depicted as a "void" and a "vacancy." The film's setting amidst the striking reds and oranges of the New England autumn gives us a sense of a place that is both edenic and unfulfilled - - a world in advent, people waiting for something.
Cast: Lee Remick (Eugenia, Baroness Muenster), Robin Ellis (Robert Acton), Tim Woodward (Felix), Wesley Addy (Mr. Wentworth), Lisa Eichhorn (Gertrude Wentworth), Nancy New (Charlotte Wentworth), Tim Choate (Clifford Wentworth), Kristan Griffith (Lizzie Acton), Helen Stenborg (Mrs. Acton), Norman Snow (Mr. Brand), Gedda Petry (Augustine).