‘The Aspern Papers’ Review: A Dead Poet’s Society, Once Removed

Critics routinely complain about screen versions of literary works that take either too many liberties or too few. And then there are the flat-out misreadings and the uninteresting, mystifying interpretations, those adaptations that veer so far from the source material that you wonder what attracted the filmmakers in the first place: the chance to revisit or flip a classic or just the box-office potential of its fan base? Too bad that the best that can be said about the woeful movie version of the “The Aspern Papers,” based on the Henry James novella, is that it might send you running to the original.

That book, published in 1888 (and set roughly around the same time), has much to recommend it, notably its exploration of the personal and the private, and a sharp view of fandom. Its unnamed narrator — called Morton Vint in the movie and played by an ill-used, miscast Jonathan Rhys Meyers — has traveled to Venice to find the papers of his idol, Jeffrey Aspern, a dead Romantic poet. This pursuit leads to Juliana Bordereau, an Aspern acquaintance and possible former lover, and one of those wizened mysteries of fiction with a fantastic past and a terminally defeated companion for a chew toy.

The good news is that Bordereau is played by Vanessa Redgrave, who shows you the movie that might have been. From her first appearance, hunched in a wheelchair, partly obscured by darkness and a green eyeshade, Redgrave draws you in, making you wonder about the enigmatic Bordereau. With gestural precision and a modulated delivery that breathes life into each word, Redgrave dominates the movie even in her character’s absence by filling it with a complicated sense of loss. She’s nicely matched by her daughter Joely Richardson, who plays Bordereau’s companion, Miss Tina, as an emblem of thwarted female existence.

Bordereau has a cache of papers that Vint desperately wants, not grasping that he in turn has something that she wants. Much of the story involves his two-track journey toward enlightenment: One turns on his schemes to secure the papers and the other on his slow-dawning awareness of the larger truth. In the book, his progress is partly inhibited by his (often dryly amusing) self-flattering regard for his mission, which can seem as towering and consuming as his regard for Aspern. Mostly to fill out a story that’s told in the first person, the movie gives him other impediments, including a dull, wealthy social set and some gauzy, panting fantasy scenes.

Vint, having already failed to secure the papers by writing to Bordereau, assumes a false identity and worms into her life. Amid the beauty shots and creeping camera moves, he rents rooms in her villa, brings its dormant garden back to bloom and fills its sepulchral rooms with luxurious bouquets. A good director could make fine interpretive use of these metaphoric riches (the book has inspired other films) or of the brittle old papers that a brittle old woman has locked away. The scholar Leland S. Person suggests another way into the story, seeing homoerotic desire at play and arguing that James “transgenders desire” by forcing the male narrator to go through women to get to Aspern.

The director Julien Landais opts for a bluntly literal approach to the story’s presumptive homoeroticism, most specifically through Vint’s fantasies of Aspern’s love life. (Landais shares script credit with Jean Pavans and Hannah Bhuiya.) Filled with pouty poses, nubile beauties and billowy fabric, these reveries — which feature another Romantic figure who seems to be an erotic Vint projection — might have worked if Landais’s aesthetic didn’t seem borrowed from the advertising portfolio for the Calvin Klein perfumery. It’s hard not to wonder what the director James Ivory, who has adapted other James titles and serves as an executive producer on “The Aspern Papers,” would have done with this movie and its unfortunate lead.

Rhys Meyers can be an adept screen presence, but the flat, uninflected American accent he uses here turns every line into a line reading. The performance lacks charisma and subtleties of feeling, and the blame largely rests with Landais, who either didn’t notice or can’t handle actors. Richardson is strong enough to survive inept direction, but the rest of the performances range from bad to wincingly bad, including the distractingly modern types on the edges. Redgrave clearly managed to deliver her turn without much guidance (or interference). “Everyone can be managed by my aunt,” Bordereau’s niece says in the book, an observation that also feels true of Redgrave.

The Aspern Papers

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The Aspern Papers
Rated R for discreet lovemaking. In English. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

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