The women wear hats that look like lampshades, and the men have perfectly combed hair, swept back like the hardened stroke of a paintbrush. There are capes, stovepipe hats, white gloves, and hand fans. There’s not a speck of dirt on anything, despite ten-bedroom estates having a single, elderly maid—maybe two—who’s definitely not getting to those hard-to-reach places. It’s always autumn, and it’s always slightly overcast, with just enough sunlight to illuminate the blood rushing to some debutante’s cheeks. The Europeans, based on the book by Henry James, is one of those: a costume drama. It’s a genre as defined and recognizable as any other, but not quite as exploited.
“Their daily drudgery is interrupted by the arrival of their European cousins…which stimulates a series of emotions that…had only existed as faint suggestions.”
This costume drama comes from director James Ivory, who, along with his producing partner, Ismail Merchant, are maybe the most well-known explorers of the genre, making such touchstones as A Room With a View and Howards End. The Europeans, released in 1979 and sporting a new 2K restoration, is a perfect example of what made the Merchant Ivory movies so successful. Ivory understands the appeal of the costume drama, which isn’t immediately apparent. On the surface, it’s just a bunch of people better off than you who have crushes on each other, but there’s a little more to it than that—just a little.
You begin with a well-off family, whose primary concern in all things is presentation and perception. In this movie’s case, it’s the Wentworths. Their daily drudgery is interrupted by the arrival of their European cousins, Felix (Tim Woodward) and Eugenia (Lee Remick), which stimulates a series of emotions that, up to that point, had only existed as faint suggestions. Tangled up love connections manifest in the most mild-mannered, carefully spoken way. It’s this quiet tension that gives the movie juice. What’s left unsaid is more important than the dialogue. The white space is where it’s at. Call it domestic intrigue, call it glorified soap, but don’t call it after teatime.
“…Ivory shoots the movie to look elegant, but in a natural, just-woke-up sort of way.”
Appropriately, Ivory shoots the movie to look elegant, but in a natural, just-woke-up sort of way. There aren’t any fancy camera tricks, only photogenic environments, and the pretty people inside them. The 2K restoration looks clean and is the optimal way to enjoy this movie for the first time unless you buy jeans with holes in them. In that case, there’s probably a VHS tape doubling as a coaster in a used bookstore somewhere.
There is a certain allure to a movie that plays hard to get. The Europeans expects you to meet it halfway. When you do, you’re rewarded with a story that’s rich with complicated emotions, despite its self-confident exterior. It’s like its characters in that way, and also in the way, it thinks highly of itself and presents itself accordingly. Modesty never did a movie good.
"…Call it domestic intrigue, call it glorified soap, but don’t call it after teatime."