I have never seen a Merchant-Ivory film. Or a Merchant film, or an Ivory film, or even a film on ivory merchants. The City of Your Final Destination, adapted by screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from a novel by Peter Cameron, is directed by the surviving half of the famed Merchant-Ivory duo, James Ivory (A Room with a View). I have, however, heard from numerous wiser and more cultured people than I that they have made some especially famous and acclaimed films in their time, and that just the name of Ivory or Merchant was enough to set old film buffs swooning about some long lost era in cinema. So, in seeing this film I really had no expectations going into it, for good or ill. As a mere layperson, I would be experiencing “Ivory cinema” without any conception of whether it was living up to past glories – or not.
The film’s plot follows literary academic Omar Razaghi, played by Omar Metwally (Munich), a miserable and weak-willed man in a relationship with his domineering girlfriend and colleague Deirdre, played by Alexandra Maria Lara (Farewell, Downfall). Omar desperately needs to write a biography on the late German-Uruguayan author Jules Gund to get his stalled career off the ground. However he first needs authorisation from the keepers of Mr. Gund’s estate; his surviving brother, Adam Gund, played by Anthony Hopkins (do we really need to say what films he’s been seen in?); his widow, Caroline, played by Laura Linney (The Other Man, Mystic River); and his mistress, Arden Langdon, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg (The Tree, ). All three we learn somewhat disturbingly live together on the same property deep in rural Uruguay where Jules Gund used to live and work, along with Adam’s younger lover Pete, played by Hiroyuki Sanada (The Last Samurai).
And that, not to put too fine a point on it, is about as interesting as the story gets. The plot, perhaps the second weakest element of the film after the excruciatingly unsubtle dialogue, which is as predictable as it is banal. Right from the beginning of the film, characters literally speak the film’s themes out loud, which for a very brief period becomes amusing and almost entertaining. One even begins to wonder if it is all perhaps a blunt misdirection for the film to suddenly shock us with startling twists and revelations. It isn’t.
Plot withstanding, the acting is actually quite good, depending on who it’s coming from. Omar Metwally fares the worst as his character is merely a vehicle for the shallow story, and he is unable to elevate the tedious dialogue to anything approaching something engaging. Charlotte Gainsbourg fares better, though I’m inclined to believe it has more to do with the writing and direction than her own talent. However, Anthony Hopkins, true to form, is able to make something of his character, and together with Hiroyuki Sanada’s Pete, their combined performances swing their characters’ story from the potentially sinister and disturbing into something quite tender and endearing.
Laura Linney’s actually a joy to watch as she takes what could have been a cringe-worthy cliché in Caroline and makes her character perhaps the most interesting and enjoyable of the entire cast. Linney, having been around for quite some time stuck in B-rate fare and smaller roles, seems to be coming into her own as a talented actress in recent years, and this film is evidence of that. Alexandra Maria Lara falls somewhere in the middle of all this, playing on Deirdre’s obsessive intensity, though she’s miles better when we can focus on her expressions and she doesn’t have to speak the awful dialogue, as her character gets some of the worst of it.
The cinematography is truly beautiful, and though it paints a highly romanticised portrait of expatriate life in the poor rural heartlands of Latin America, it is a warm and cosy marvel to behold as it luxuriates on the lush setting and the vivid details of the sets and costumes. In a sense it captures the essence of the film; sleepy, mundane, but warm and altogether kind of enjoyable in an unhurried leisurely way. There is nothing exciting or intriguing in the film as far as plot or mystery goes, but if you just sit back and let the experience wash over you without any expectation that the movie is really going anywhere, the slow meandering journey isn’t half bad. Just don’t be surprised if you aren’t remotely surprised by the film.
Sometimes it’s nice to just relax and listen to the deep soothing tones of Anthony Hopkins, even if what he’s saying is absolute dribble.