DVD Review: Enchanted April (1992)

Arriving on DVD
For the First Time

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As frustrating as it is upon discovering that some of our favorite hidden cinematic gems have gone out of print-- either when studios, subdivisions, and/or manufacturers collapse or the titles simply no longer earn any money to justify the cost-- it's doubly disappointing when ardent fans ascertain that a beloved, thrice Oscar nominated and double Golden Globe winning work work has never found its way onto DVD.

Of course, we all have our wish lists of items we long to add to our home library. For me, topping that chart is Rich Man Poor Man (which others have raved about for years in a way that's given me intense miniseries-envy) along with the television series Ed and every individual season of The Larry Sanders Show. And while those all may just simply fall under the radar as far as studio or DVD manufacturers go-- it's time for Anglophiles to rejoice as enthusiasts of Four Weddings and a Funeral director Mike Newell's languid 1992 British European crossover hit, Enchanted April will be thrilled to learn that Miramax Studios is releasing the title at long last on DVD May 5.

Just in time for a more Masterpiece Theater styled Mother's Day tie-in gift-- this originally made for British television work which instead was turned directly into feature film material was adapted by screenwriter Peter Barnes from Elizabeth von Arnim's novel.

Enchanted April
, which had been brought to the screen once before nearly sixty years earlier than Newell's big-screen foray centers on an unlikely quartet of British women who pool their money together in the 1920s to venture to a grand medieval villa in the picturesque riviera setting of San Salvatore, Italy.

Hoping to unwind for a leisurely month away from their hectic lives and-- (in the case of two women)-- their husbands back home, soon the group of diverse female heroines begin to forge unexpected friendships in a foreign land despite their obvious differences in age, class, income, and situation.

The cinematic retreat via a meditative sabbatical among the flowers, crystal blue ocean, and amazing artwork of Italy was first hatched as a hypothetical “what if?” daydream following a well-written advertisement for an escape to an Italian castle in the brain of the daffy and conveniently mostly reality-free Lottie Wilkins (East Enders star Josie Lawrence).

Although she barely knows Miranda Richardson's Rose Arbuthnot-- Lottie's desire to ditch London's endless, gray days filled with the rains of “April Showers”-- not to mention the thrill of being able to earn a much needed break from her business-obsessed husband (Alfred Molina) strike a chord with Rose who's likewise saddled with an inattentive, flirtatious husband who masquerades as a salacious scribe (played by Moulin Rouge's Jim Broadbent).

Thus, deciding she's in as well-- especially after meeting with the property owner, Mr. Briggs (an effectively likable, understated Foyle's War star Michael Kitchen) who feels the pangs of a crush upon meeting Richardson's luminous Italian museum-like beauty-- Rose and Lottie realize they must seek out two additional strangers with whom they can foot the bill.

To this end, they meet the blunt, proud, fussy but worldly and secretly lonely Mrs. Fisher (Joan Plowright) along with the wealthy flapper with a reputation in the form of the film's powerful scene-stealer Polly Walker's Caroline Dester who breaks hearts daily but must hide her own under the armor of money, makeup, and men.

Unbeknown to Rose, Caroline Dester has been trying to divert the attentions of the Rose's aggressive, cad-like husband Frederick (Broadbent) away from herself which becomes far more difficult when Frederick drops by the Italian castle to visit the woman he's hoping to recruit as a mistress, only to discover his wife is in the exact same location.

It's at about this time-- roughly clocking in right around the one hour mark of this overwhelmingly slow-moving and at times unspeakably yawn-inducing picture-- that we're finally presented with anything resembling a plot that contains dramatic conflict and the potential for a great Oscar Wilde meets Midsummer Night's Dream inspired comedy of romantic misadventure in a sensuous locale.

However, the potential is squandered quickly as the film which begins as a spirited, free-thinking, pre-feminist work about a group of women who go against the male-dominated society in the post World War I devastation that made everyone reconsider their lot in life soon becomes a forgettable and ultimately plot-less work wherein the women escape their gray "prisons" of unhappy matrimony only to invite their "wardens" to visit them at the first opportunity.

Of course, while some may say it's fitting for the time period-- Edith Wharton, Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald and other writers were doing far more daring things with their female characters and overall, despite the polished performances and high quality art direction and costuming (by Oscar nominated designer Sheena Napier)-- mostly it's a beautiful but vapid time-waster.

Additionally, it's one so devoid of a compelling plot that I was stunned to discover that Peter Barnes earned an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay which wastes precious time in its shockingly brief running time with useless repetition of information as the women discuss something, act on it, and then the action is confirmed again by the predicted and discussed result, padding out the already succinct ninety-three minutes.

Further letting audiences down in 2009 since we realize that we've not only seen the same type of "women discovering themselves in foreign lands" works completed to a much richer result as in the Miramax morsel Chocolat and another Disney owned Buena Vista Home Entertainment work Under the Tuscan Sun, unfortunately while the packaging for Newell's work is first rate in a regal black and gold box as part of Miramax's "Award Winning Collection" and a painterly cover featuring the lovely Polly Walker (State of Play), the film itself doesn't appear to have been touched up in the slightest.

Essentially matching the same VHS quality I'd first encountered with it-- even when I played the DVD in an upconvert Blu-ray player-- while the Italian Riviera still sparkles with warm loveliness, I was surprised by how grainy the color scheme was and tried to adjust the settings the best I could to improve the flesh tones of the actors and augment the low sound transfer (which is usually never a problem with the sterling quality of Miramax releases).

Of course, to fans, it's just a great joy that the work has finally debuted on DVD seventeen years following its first theatrical run but for those who haven't yet seen the picture, you may want to rent it before you make the decision to add it to your home library, since despite my reverence of my favorite studio growing up in Miramax, it seems to be one of the lesser works and a nice preview of the better work to come from Newell in the future. And to Newell's admirers, it's definitely one to pick up if only to listen to the brand new bonus feature as he participates in a feature commentary track along with his producer Ann Scott. However, to the rest of us-- we'll be far better satisfied with a piece of Binoche, Depp and Hallstrom's Chocolat.