Everybody has a story in James Ivory’s “The City of Your Final Destination” – but not everyone is interested in having his or her story told.
Such is the biographer’s burden: He knows – or thinks he knows – the story he wants to write. But getting other people to give him the pieces of the story is a different job entirely.
Based on a novel by Peter Cameron, “The City of Your Final Destination,” opening in limited release on Friday (4/16/10), is an orphaned film that’s been completed since 2007. But even with Ivory’s Oscar-studded past, the current climate for independent film made it seem like a risky proposition until now, apparently.
It’s not hard to see why. Quiet, deliberate and understated in its humor and romance, “City” is a subtle, polished story that is, in the parlance, “character-driven.” There’s not a whole lot of plot – but that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot going on.
The catalyst for the story, in the script by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, is Omar Razaghi (played by Omar Metwally), an academic at an American college who apparently needs to publish or perish. He wants to write the biography of a noted author named Jules Gund, who wrote a single novel – but apparently a seminal one, called “The Gondola.” But Omar’s query to Gund’s estate has been rejected.
Pushed by his overbearing fiancé, Deirdre (Alexandra Maria Lara), Omar travels to Gund’s estate in Uruguay, a mansion and property called Ocho Rios, and shows up unannounced to try to convince Gund’s survivors to change their mind. They are, at a minimum, bemused at this upbeat, naïve young scholar.
But they aren’t as negative as the letter would make them sound. In fact, Gund’s brother, Adam (Anthony Hopkins), is more than ready to cooperate. As it turns out, so is Gund’s mistress (and mother of a young daughter), Arden (Charlotte Gainsbourg), though she needs a little persuading.
The holdout is Gund’s widow, Caroline (Laura Linney), who claims the writer specifically told her he didn’t want a biography. Still, she agrees to let Omar stay at the estate, begrudging the hospitality but still welcoming the company.
But she is the least agreeable member of the household, perhaps because of the role she finds herself cast in – and the one she would wind up playing in the biography. She was, after all, still Gund’s wife when he brought home the young mistress. And she was expected to give this young invader a place in her house – and to help rear the child Arden had with Jules, or at least treat the little girl like family, rather than an interloper.
Even as the Gund heirs start to change their point of view about a biography, Omar finds his view of Gund and his potential book shifting as well. Seeing the trappings of his subject’s life – including the women with whom he was involved and the place where he lived – forces him out of his dry, academic posture. He comes to regard Gund as a kind of life force still driving these people, a man whose life extended far beyond the pages of his single book.
There are other plot threads, most of them having to do with the Gunds’ financial straits and with Adam’s concerns for his ward – his younger lover Pete (Hiroyuki Sanada), now 40, who has been with Adam since Pete was 15 (and who Adam adopted in order to bring him into the country). Theirs is a wistful, unspoken love, one the old man clings to but doubts, even as his young paramour tries to reassure him that he has everything he has ever wanted at Ocho Rios.
Ivory’s film has an autumnal feel, but also a surprisingly jolly, if understated, wit. Much of the humor springs from Omar’s naiveté, but also from the hard-charging, intractably pragmatic Deirdre. Lara is particularly funny as this woman who wants what she wants but doesn’t want to be thought of as demanding it.
Hopkins gives a light, almost breezy performance, while Linney finds the humor in the sulky Charlotte. Metwally is able to keep Omar fresh-faced without seeming like the character is hopelessly written, rather than a natural human being.
“The City of Your Final Destination” offers gorgeous views of the Argentine pampas (which stand in for Uruguay), and a welcome sense of leisure in telling a story that unfolds gradually, rather than aggressively. There is, one hopes, still room for a film as charming and layered as this one.