Magnificent film style illuminates Angel's themesWhere Angels Fear to Tread
Directed by Charles Sturridge.
Written by Tim Sullivan, Derek Granger,
and Charles Sturridge.
Starring Helena Bonham Carter and Rupert Graves.
Based on the book by E. M. Forster.
By Jennifer Duncan
One's first impressions upon viewing the opening moments of Where Angels Fear to Tread, based on a novel by E. M. Forster, are strong reminders of A Room With a View, another film based, not unexpectedly, on a Forster text. The fact that two of the main characters, Caroline Abbott (Helena Bonham Carter) and Philip Herriton (Rupert Graves), are played by two of the principle actors from A Room With a View serves only to heighten this effect. To complicate things further, the actress playing Harriet Herriton (Judy Davis) is famous for her role in A Passage to India, yet another adaptation of one of Forster's works. Nevertheless, to the credit of the actors and director, within a quarter of an hour all the above is forgotten and the viewer is engrossed in a new world of substantially different, well-defined, and engaging characters.
One of the film's major thematic conflicts is typical for Forster, or at least, I am beginning to believe it is typical. Staid, Victorian English travelers fall under the spell of romantic, wild, and free Italy. Lilia Herriton (Helen Mirren), the widowed sister-in-law of Philip and Harriet Herriton, goes so far as to impulsively betroth herself to a handsome young Italian (Giovanni Guidelli) while on holiday. This action causes Philip to make a quick but unsuccessful journey at his mother's insistence (Barbara Jefford) to avert the impending catastrophe. Lilia's traveling companion, Miss Abbott, is apparently greatly distressed by the whole situation.
The following segment is a mature exploration of Lilia's dilemma. On the one hand, she asserts her independence from her English family and from the gender discrimination they endorse. She disassociates herself from the emotionless world of propriety and forbidden things, and embraces the passion and openness of Italy. However, she discovers there is some wisdom to the British attitude that foreigners are simply different, and that a mixed marriage will not work. The harsh actuality of cultural differences makes itself known through incontrovertible masculine superiority and beatings. Lilia's character is captured rather well in a sequence in which she makes an impulsive decision to leave, then dashes madly down a steep hillside in an attempt to catch the cart to the railway. However, the cart eludes her and she is left dirty and resigned to remain. This cinematically reflects her spontaneity and bravery and simultaneously, her inability to follow her decisions through to the end. Instead, they merely overwhelm her.
The film then pulls a Hitchcockian maneuver. Well into the film, the supposedly central character dies during childbirth. This results in a difficult situation for the Herritons, namely what to do with the baby son. They choose to ignore it and keep the whole affair quite hushed, not even informing the child's half-sister Irma (Sophie Kullmann) of its existence. Strangely enough, that which they most desire to repress somehow slips to the forefront. Once Miss Abbott announces her desire to obtain the baby from its Italian relatives and raise it in Merry Olde England, Philip is again dispatched by Mrs. Herriton in order to set things right -- this time by bringing the child home to be raised as a Herriton after all. However, this time his horribly (and I must say wonderfully) proper and prim sister Harriet accompanies him.
The remainder of the film depicts the bargaining over the baby, and the seduction of Philip and Miss Abbott by Italy. It becomes clear that each has had feelings of attraction towards the place, or rather the spirit of the place, for some time. Miss Abbott confesses to having influenced Lilia to remain, perhaps attempting to experience the passion of Italy vicariously through her friend. A very moving scene concerns her meeting with Gino, the baby's father, and her aid in giving the baby a wash. Philip's night at the opera fulfills some deep need -- apparently for revelry and unabashed expression -- not provided by the harsher English environment.
The two discover the real secret of Italy's enticing allure -- rather than destructively overwhelming them with its romanticized charms, it frees them to examine the constraints of their English values and provides a new framework from which they can judge the position of their lives. This is why they succeed where Lilia fails. Of course, Harriet remains marvelously close-minded and unappreciative of the splendors and opportunities of Italy.
One of the films great strengths, in addition to superb acting, is the cinematography. The landscapes are as beautiful as the shot compositions and camera work used to depict them. The contrasts between sober England and passionate Italy are underscored in the costumes, camera motion, and lighting. One set of parallel scenes focuses on churches. The Italian chapel is faintly lit by wavering candles, as the camera flows over rows of chanting, veiled women. The English church is as neat and tidy as its patrons. It is the bright setting for highly regulated social discourse, displayed through a rectilinearly-aligned frame which moves only when absolutely necessary. A similar contrast is amusingly highlighted by a pair of gambling scenes.
An especially powerful example of how the meaning of a scene tends to be reflected through staging rather than explicitly in words involves candlelight. In a central scene, Philip expresses to Caroline Abbott the joy in his new-found sense of really living life, yet also utters the realization that "Some are born not to do great things, and I am one of them." The screen is filled with his face, a lantern, and intriguing patterns of light and shadow. During the soon-to-come tribulations invoked by Harriet's unfortunately ignorant and irresponsible behavior, Charlotte is the one who reminds Philip of his power to make real decisions rather than allowing himself to be swept along. At the height of dramatic tension, Philip is attempting to light a match in the rain. Charlotte appears over his head with a lantern. A few moments later, Philip is inside facing one of the most difficult challenges of his life, and as he struggles to decide how he will act, the focus is on his lighting a candle. The climactic scene is astoundingly moving, involving Charlotte orchestrating a powerful unification between the man of Italy and the man of Britain.
This illustration should not give the impression that the film is reducible to trite symbols or that the through-line is simple and easy to detect. If anything, the film's pull involves several strands and a variety of issues that seem to be almost too much for one piece. The effect, however, is a satisfyingly mature exploration of several difficult questions from multiple viewpoints. The multi-leveled expression of these issues through text, setting, and cinematography serves to enrich one's experience of the film. If you enjoy puzzling over questions of gender, culture, experiences of growth, or communication without words, this film is for you. As you watch, keep in mind that a new E. M. Forster piece, Howard's End, will soon be released, and ask yourself what it is about his works that seems to be attracting so much attention from our culture.