I ATTENDED a most agreeable party at the Plaza Hotel recently. It was held in the Rose Room, overlooking West 58th Street and the Fine Arts Theater, where "Howards End" has been playing for the past few months. The purpose of the gathering was to honor Merchant Ivory Productions, which made that film, and to celebrate a milestone: $1 million in ticket sales at this one Manhattan movie house.
"Howards End," directed by James Ivory from E. M. Forster's classic novel, will never be a hit by Steven Spielberg or Arnold Schwarzenegger standards. But its resounding success at the Fine Arts, and other theaters around the country where it's now playing, demonstrate that there is a continuing market for literate, civilized films offering pleasures very different from those of standard Hollywood fare.
If a movie like "Howards End" and a production company like Merchant Ivory were the only examples of their breed, they could be written off as exceptions to the generally scruffy state of American cinema. But other artists occasionally add their voices to the chorus of mature filmmaking. A recent example is Charles Sturridge, director of "Where Angels Fear To Tread," also based on a Forster novel.
And now there's the delicious "Enchanted April," a gentle tale of the 1920s from British director Mike Newell.
"Enchanted April" begins with a disenchanting London rainstorm, on one of those gloomy days when there's not much to do but stay inside and read the newspaper. While doing this in her ladies' club, a woman named Rose spots a tantalizing advertisement: There's a small castle for rent in Italy during April, offering the "wisteria and sunshine" of a continental vacation at what seems a reasonable price.
Rose is about to turn the page when Lottie, a slight acquaintance of hers, rushes breathlessly up. She's read the same ad and is filled with longing for a month of Mediterranean beauty. Eventually the women strike a bargain - driven largely by the prospect of getting away from their ridiculous husbands for a while - and recruit two more vacationers to share the cost and the adventure.
The four roommates, or villamates, are an unlikely combination: openly unhappy Lottie, rigidly religious Rose, a freewheeling society sort named Caroline, and a widow named Mrs. Fisher who's cranky enough to make up for all the missing husbands combined. Various menfolk also barge into the retreat, moreover, making the away-from-it-all vacation into a rather crowded affair, but one that brings about changes of mind and mood, sometimes bordering on magical, in all concerned.
Taken from a novel by Elizabeth Von Arnim, the story of "Enchanted April" is slight. Yet a couple of factors give the film unexpected substance.
One such factor is the ensemble of excellent performances. Momentum starts to build in the early scenes with Josie Lawrence, a noted comedy performer, and Miranda Richardson, who appeared in Mr. Newell's drama "Dance With a Stranger" a few years ago. They are joined by Polly Walker, who's also visible in "Patriot Games" this season, and - as Mrs. Fisher, the old curmudgeon - Joan Plowright in top form. The men in the cast make good showings, too; but women get most of the movie's attention and use the op portunity to great advantage.
Another factor in the picture's success is Rex Maidment's lush cinematography. He gives "Enchanted April" a truly enchanted look that grows especially spellbinding near the end, when mere logic is superseded by something richer, stranger, and more ravishingly romantic.
"Enchanted April" isn't a great film, and it may not prove more memorable than Newell's earlier "Dance With a Stranger," which faded from mind almost as soon as it disappeared from the screen. But it's fun while it lasts, packed with jaunty performances and an atmosphere that grows daringly dreamlike at moments - helping the spirit of civilized filmmaking stay alive and well during this mostly lackluster season.