The Bostonians Image

The Bostonians

By Sabina Dana Plasse | September 25, 2022

Based on a novel by Henry James of the same title, The Bostonians is one of the more recognizable films by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory of Merchant and Ivory Productions. They created many timeless genre films based on novels and short stories by several famous authors, with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala including the beloved Howard’s End. Merchant and Ivory’s well-known style of the bonds of human nature to society with all its innate psyches are still evolving here. But they’d come to fruition and popularity soon after in projects such as A Room with A View and Remains of the Day, to name a few. Director Ivory’s observational style is still forming yet remains interestingly raw.

 The Bostonians is a story wrapped within the 19th-century women’s suffragette movement where a wealthy spinster from Boston’s Back Bay, Olive Chancellor (Vanessa Redgrave), takes on and controls a young woman, Verena Tarrant (Madeline Potter). Verena is a spotlight for women’s equal rights with beauty, poise, and intelligence. She falls for a conservative Southern attorney Basil Ransom (Christopher Reeve), Olive’s cousin, who wants her all for himself. Pushing the women’s movement within Olive’s world is the elderly and very pro-women rights Miss Birdseye (Jessica Tandy), the wealthy and savvy Mrs. Burrage (Nancy Marchand), and the reality-based and sensible female physician Dr. Prance (Linda Hunt).

Verena is a spotlight for women’s equal rights…she falls for a conservative Southern attorney…”

Several forces at work make this such a complex film, perhaps ahead of its time but also confusing in purpose, especially where the independent, modern-thinking woman is concerned. Many lesbian overtones surround Olive and Verena’s relationship, which is furthered by Olive’s commitment to women’s liberation and her disbelief in marriage. But she’s not naive, recognizing that her character is selfish and demanding. Confused but desiring affection, Verena knows the extent of her gifts and is caught in a love triangle. Basil’s presence and domination grow throughout the film, and he wins Verena in a somewhat peculiar struggle.

However, Verena’s choice of Basil gives power to Olive’s mission, empowering the idea that women must be recognized. Oddly, The Bostonians is about this path. Even though women want and deserve more equality with men, sexual desire wins out rather than intellect and ability, which is what Verena publicly speaks about and very eloquently. All of this is furthered by Redgrave’s tremendous acting. She owns her character with the pillbox hats and all the nuances that come with Olive’s being and conviction.

The Bostonians (1984)

Directed: James Ivory

Written: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Starring: Vanessa Redgrave, Madeline Potter, Christopher Reeve, Jessica Tandy, Linda Hunt, Nancy Marchand, etc.

Movie score: 8/10

The Bostonians Image

"…a complex film, perhaps ahead of its time..."

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join our Film Threat Newsletter

Newsletter Icon