The production company Merchant Ivory has long been regarded, for good or ill, as the imprimatur of "quality" films, especially in the realm of classic literary adaptations. With James Ivory directing most of the movies, and Ismail Merchant acting as producer (and occasional director), they cut a wide swath through the works of Henry James, E.M. Forster, and many others. Their usual screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, has been with Merchant Ivory from the beginning, with "The Householder" (1963).
Merchant died in 2005, just as a new film, "The City of Your Final Destination," was gearing up. Filmed three years ago, and delayed by money troubles, it is only now getting its release. It's the first Merchant Ivory film without Merchant's involvement, and yet, in many ways, it exhibits what is both good and not so good about the company's ongoing legacy.
Based on the 2002 novel of the same name by Peter Cameron, "The City of Your Final Destination" is a chamber drama that takes place, more often than not, in the open air. Omar Razaghi (Omar Metwally), an academic at the University of Colorado, is intent on furthering his career by writing the authorized biography of Jules Gund, the famous one-shot European expatriate novelist who recently killed himself while living in Uruguay. Prodded by his colleague and girlfriend, Deirdre (Alexandra Maria Lara), whose ambitions far exceed his own, Omar pays an unwelcome visit to the Gund compound – a steamy expanse of property known as "Ocho Rios" – and attempts to persuade Jules's heirs to cooperate with him.
Jules's wife, Caroline (Laura Linney), remains adamantly opposed; his mistress, Arden (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who lives on the compound with their 10-year-old daughter, takes a shine to Omar and wavers; Jules's brother, Adam (Anthony Hopkins), who lives there with his lover, Pete (Hiroyuki Sanada), is in favor of cooperating, though his participation comes with a price.
Omar comes across as a bumbler and too insubstantial to serve as the focus of this human whirligig. From what we hear about Jules, he fits all too comfortably into the generic genius-womanizer expatriate mold of a Hemingway or Picasso. Ivory and Jhabvala are trying to coax the material into Chekhovian terrain, but the characters, with one exception, don't have the luminosity for that. They are steadfastly classifiable: Caroline is snippy-sarcastic; Arden is callow-winsome; Omar is clueless; Deirdre is ruthless.
Only Adam escapes the straitjacket, and that's because Hopkins, who was stunning in "The Remains of the Day," has a special affinity for Ivory's indirect style of direction. Both men move into dramatic situations from the sidelines, as it were; the big moments are all about nuance, not exhortation. Hopkins brings out Adam's courtliness but he also lets us see the dissoluteness and sorrows underneath. He's a novelistic character in a movie peopled by pencil drawings.
The Merchant Ivory movies hark back to a time when films were considered art only if they were derived from the classics. Some of the performances, such as Vanessa Redgrave's Olive Chancellor in "The Bostonians," have been towering, "The Remains of the Day" and "A Room With a View" are first-class adaptations, and several of the early, India-based movies, such as "Shakespeare Wallah," are marvelous. One can dislike half of what Merchant Ivory has done and yet, in principle, still support the cause. Cutting-edge isn't all. (Rated PG-13 for a brief sexual situation with partial nudity.)