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James Ivory’s latest film harkens back to Merchant-Ivory’s greatest triumphs, particularly A Room With A View (1985). But instead of a sheltered ingénue, City tells the story of a restless young academic, Omar, who is forced to question his own feelings towards his career, his relationship, and ultimately his view of the world. If this sounds like a heavy-handed premise, don’t despair; City’s tone is surprisingly light, and the film moves along snappily.
Omar (Omar Metwally) has just received a grant to write the biography of a famous novelist named Jules Gund, a project that will cement his career as a professor of literature. However, the executors of the late Gund’s estate—his wife Caroline (Laura Linney), brother Adam (Anthony Hopkins) and mistress Arden (Charlotte Gainsbourg)—do not want the biography to be written. At the urging of his overbearing girlfriend Deirdre (Alexandra Maria Lara) Omar flies to Gund’s estate in Uruguay and, after arriving unannounced, sets about changing everybody’s mind.
What follows is part comedy of manners and part romance, but also something more: a gently existential exploration of Omar’s changing concept of his purpose in life. The longer he stays at the Gund estate and the more he acquaints himself with the tangled web of the author’s life, the more Omar realizes that his clear-cut ideas about literature, career, and love are not really his ideas, but what he feels is expected of him. As he begins to be accepted into Gund’s family circle, he feels drawn to a life of pleasure and contemplation, and begins to dread his return to the snowy, drab university he works at. As if to illustrate this dichotomy, the scenes in Uruguay (which were actually shot on location in Buenos Aires) are sumptuous, classic Merchant-Ivory. The lighting is meticulous, the colors are rich and yet muted enough to look real, and each shot is framed so carefully that it feels more like watching a moving painting than a regular film.
The film’s star-studded cast manages to function well together. No one gets overpowered, although it’s hard for Sir Anthony, even in this relatively subtle role, not to outshine his co-stars at every opportunity (since I last saw him in The Wolfman, this was something of a relief). Laura Linney is tasked with the somewhat caustic role of the scorned widow, but she manages to bring off her character’s spite without making her unrelatable. Alexandra Maria Lara (Downfall) does a fine job as Omar’s insufferable girlfriend—like Linney, she folds her character’s obnoxious traits into a developed, believable personality.
Overall, City feels like a breath of fresh air from Mr. Ivory, who sadly has been operating without his legendary producer Ismail Merchant since the latter’s death in 2005. The fact that this film is set in the present day—as well as its brisk narrative pace—definitely works in its favor. This is no sprawling, three-hour historical epic; it’s a quirky, beautiful little film that even non-Merchant-Ivory devotees will be able to enjoy.