Blu-ray Review: The Aspern Papers (2018)

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With three generations of Redgraves linked to three productions of The Aspern Papers, by this point you could say that bringing the gothically romantic Henry James tale to life is officially a Redgrave thing.

Originally published in 1888 and in three parts no less, the novella — inspired by the letters that the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley penned for his wife Mary Shelley's step-sister, Claire Clairmont, which Claire kept until her death — was first brought to the stage by Michael Redgrave in 1959.

Later revived in 1984 in an award-winning production starring Michael's daughter Vanessa Redgrave (opposite Christopher Reeve who acted alongside her in a big-screen Merchant Ivory version of Henry James's The Bostonians also in ‘84), now more than thirty years later, Redgrave gets the chance to bring Papers to life once again.

Changing with the times by taking on a new role in this effort from first time feature filmmaker Julien Landais, which, produced by James Ivory is based on a French scenic adaptation by Jean Pavans, in 2018’s The Aspern Papers Vanessa Redgrave passes the torch to daughter Joely Richardson who slides into her old part.

A sudsy drama about an obsessive American editor, the film stars Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Morton Vint who — using whatever guise and lies are necessary — travels to Venice to track down the letters of his literary idol Jeffrey Aspern.

Posing as a man on holiday, he rents a room from Redgrave's Clairmont inspired Juliana Bordereau and sets out to win over the woman's sheltered, spinster niece Miss Tina (Richardson).

While ordinarily Rhys Meyers can play the role of a seducer in his sleep and make you believe it, he's visibly uncomfortable in Aspern, turning in a performance that's half Lestat from Interview With the Vampire and half Elvis Presley, whom he portrayed to well-deserved acclaim in a 2005 television miniseries. And although yes, I'm aware that he also played Dracula recently on the small screen perhaps, as with Aspern, the less said about that the better.

As disinterested as it is overly strong, Aspern's acting is a mess to say the least and indicative of a much bigger problem, which is the film itself. For in his uncertainty throughout, Rhys Meyers is far from alone.

All three of the film's performances feel like they belong in three entirely different James adaptations. While Redgrave easily dominates as a cross between Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond and Film Noir era Joan Crawford, Richardson tiptoes quietly around the others, playing her part as though she'd just stepped onstage in The Glass Menagerie.

Filled with clunky, heavy-handed narration and odd moments of Eyes Wide Shut homage that belong in a fragrance ad (which makes sense considering the director's background helming fashion shorts, commercials, and music videos), although the Venetian backdrop is stunning and thespians will relish the opportunity to see the Redgrave family command a scene, this is easily the worst Henry James adaptation I have ever seen.

Unsure just what exactly it is that he wants to say, Landais seems much more interested in using the characters — namely Vint — as a jumping off point to explore his own ideas and identity.

And although it's apparent that Landais is a visual thinker with some kind of story to tell, it's easy to deduce within the first few monologues by the Redgraves who know it best that The Aspern Papers isn't it.

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