Film Review – The Aspern Papers (2019)
I have a special fondness for movies that are book adaptations. The world extends beyond the book, embracing the visual medium of film, and suddenly, what existed as foggy, intangible images in your mind become clear and distinct. In this transfiguration from book to film, we must understand that not everything can be captured. The hours we spent getting lost in a book can never really quite amount to the same effort in film.
The problem with The Aspern Papers is not in the adapting; its issues stem from the fact that it isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. The story-telling is just as lost as our main character, and though Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter Joely Richardson turn in strong performances, it is all for naught.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Julien Landais
Written By: Julien Landais, Jean Pavans, Hannah Bhuiya, and Henry James (based on the novel by)
Starring: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, Lois Robbins, Joe Kortajarena, Alice Aufray, Nicolas Hau
An editor (Meyers), who has spent his life devoted to editing and researching the life of poet Jeffrey Aspern (Kortajarena), takes up residence in the house of the poet’s former mistress (Redgrave), hoping to discover any papers that Aspern might have written to her, so as to peer deeper into his private life. When it seems convincing the old lady might prove to be a difficult task, he engages the help of her niece (Joely Richardson), who struggles between the loyalty she has to her aunt and the desire she feels for this man.
It would appear that the undertaking of this Henry James’ text is something that runs in the blood of both Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter Joely Richardson. Her father Michael Redgrave appeared in the stage version of The Aspern Papers in 1959, and when there was a revival of it in 1984, Vanessa Redgrave took on the role of Miss Tina. Now years later, she is taking on the role of Juliana Bordereau, while her daughter plays Miss Tina. Redgrave has been through every version of this story in a sense, describing her experience to be the “full stretch of the bow”.
Redgrave is very complimentary of her daughter’s performance, noting her complete transformation into the character of Miss Tina when they were on set, and the authenticity she gave to the character.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers is Miscast
I take no pleasure in saying this, but unfortunately, this is something that would be clear to all who watched the movie. In the film, since Meyers plays an American character (Morton Vint), he puts on an American accent for the role. The problem with this is that it doesn’t allow him to reflect the nuances and inflections in the words he narrates, which more often than not, are poetic in nature. His voice is bland and one-note, so maybe it would have been better for the film if he had been able to use his natural voice instead.
The range of his acting is limited to artful poses of him blowing smoke into the air (which he does quite well) and staring intensely at Redgrave or Richardson. It feels like Meyers has returned to one of his old roles, either that of Henry Tudor or Dracula, with some kind of seductive swagger, which doesn’t quite fit the character he is portraying.
Redgrave and Richardson are Brilliant
Every time Redgrave or Richardson are on screen, they command my attention. Redgrave is sharp with her wit, often devouring Meyers when they share a scene together. Of course this is for characterization purposes, but none of his comebacks ever land as effectively as hers. She questions his interest in her garden when there are better gardens elsewhere, and scoffs at his promise to bring flowers into the garden, as well as his preoccupation with the “idea of a garden in the middle of the sea” (this is apt because the story takes place in Venice). Her wit changes so quickly to mania that we wonder if all this hysteria is a mere show for Vint.
While Redgrave is commendable, Richardson is the true star of The Aspern Papers. I have only seen Richardson in the TV series Nip/Tuck, so seeing her in this film was quite the experience for me. Playing the often nervous and timid Miss Tina, she offers quite the contrast to Redgrave’s Juliana, who is made of sturdier stuff. There is this softness to her at times when the character wants to give in to what Vint desires, but also a steeliness that he can’t quite budge. She does so much with her eyes, that those close-up shots of her face, especially when Vint narrates what he sees expressed there – is so spot-on. I feel so acutely the conflict she faces with regard to desire and familial loyalty. Richardson really needs to start taking on more prolific roles, because she is truly magnificent. I would watch the movie again just for her alone.
The Mystery of Jeffrey Aspern
As the movie goes on, Vint shares with us what he feels are in the letters. His interpretation comes from the fact that Juliana declined to offer up the letters, thus implying that something quite scandalous in nature lay within those pages. In this imagined narrative, there is another man involved, known only as the romantic poet (and credited in IMDb as such). The homoerotic suggestion here is interesting, since it offers a nice parallel to Vint’s own obsession with Aspern — essentially a man wishing to peer into the life of a man with another man (I confused myself a little there). However, the intrusions of these scenes with Aspern, Juliana and the romantic poet all intertwined together in a threesome of lovemaking just feels so out of place. The actors don’t feel like real people, they look like models in some commercial that only succeeds in making the audience uncomfortable.
Also, after Vint sees the portrait of Aspern with his green coat, he gets one tailored for himself as well. He struts quite effusively while wearing this item of clothing, to show how possessed he is by the ghost of Aspern. The problem here is that Meyers has been strutting for most of the movie, so I didn’t really see it as him embodying the spirit of Jeffrey Aspern; it looked more like Vint just twirling about and wanting to show off his new coat.
It is a shame the movie could not live up to the potency of the novel that came before it. So much of the novel is about the interior — the action occurs mainly in the interiors of Juliana’s home, with the narrator seeking to pry into the interiors of Aspern’s life through Juliana. A lot of the scenes in the movie play out inside the house, and while I do enjoy how the presentation feels very theater-like, Meyers is too much of a weak link to hold his own against Redgrave and Richardson. There is no sense of what motivates his character besides the mystery. What exactly does he find so compelling in Jeffrey Aspern as a poet? Is his fascination with him a kind of narcissism or an envy for his ability to create, something which Vint cannot do? There are no answers to be found, because I think Meyers himself has not quite settled on who exactly Morton Vint is.
But I will applaud the movie on one thing; it has made me want to read the book again. Henry James, here I come.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on The Aspern Papers? Comment down below!
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