Where Angels Fear to Tread
1993, PG, 116 min. Directed by Charles Sturridge. Starring Helena Bonham Carter, Judy Davis, Rupert Graves, Giovanni Guidelli, Barbara Jefford, Helen Mirren.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 24, 1992
Historians looking back at the last ten years of filmmaking might well dub this period the “E.M. Forster Years.” During this time, there's been a rash of films based on Forster novels (A Passage to India, A Room With a View, Maurice), a trend that should soon subside due only to the finite number of Forster novels ever written. (Still, that leaves the challenge of his numerous short stories, essays and works of criticism yet to film.) This glut has positioned the audience in the peculiar predicament of there being two Forster adaptations in current exhibition: Where Angels Fear to Tread and Howard's End by the Merchant/Ivory team. At first glance, Where Angels Fear to Tread evinces that studied Masterpiece Theatre look. And perhaps with good reason: director Sturridge got his start in filmmaking when helming that prize-winning Evelyn Waugh adaptation, Brideshead Revisited. Where Angels Fear to Tread is Forster's first novel and most resembles A Room With a View in its themes of strait-laced Brits abroad in the fecund and more demonstrative Italian climes. Forster's visions of the British middle-class are that of a petty and prejudiced populace traveling to distant countries that they could enjoy much more, if only all the “foreigners” would leave. Angels doesn't have quite the graceful filigrees and wit that A Room With a View exhibits but it's no slouch either, in the tragi-comedy of manners department. What it may lack in delicacy and nuance it more than makes up for with its delicious performances. In particular, Davis (Barton Fink, Naked Lunch) is brilliant in her go-for-broke characterization of Mirren's vile sister-in-law, which Davis archly plays for all its humorous and contemptible possibilities -- hysterical in every sense. Mirren (A Passage to India and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover) sensuously plays the widowed Lilia Herriton who, during a restorative trip to Italy falls in love with and marries the handsome Gino. This young man is half her age and even less her social/financial equal, scandalizing her family-in-law back in England. While in Italy, Lilia dies in childbirth and her mother-in-law then dispatches her son and daughter (Graves and Davis) to retrieve the child. Also on this rescue mission is Lilia's original traveling companion, Caroline Abbott (Bonham Carter -- who has also starred in A Room With a View and the upcoming Howard's End). For all their interference, all these meddlesome people alter very little, improve nothing and learn just a wee bit more about themselves. Sometimes, the story line quickly glosses over too much and details too little. But it's the story's cool and detached observations that are the real charm here.