Edith Wharton: Harmonic Pretense

DATELINE: America’s Great Woman Writer

edith & dogs

Wharton also Wrote about Ghostly Dogs!

Like Henry James, one of the great American writers is a person who lived too long in foreign places.

Edith Wharton is presented in a documentary called The Sense of Harmony, which presents in somewhat disjointed form, her odd life. She was from the New York self-ordained aristocracy, socializing with a world alien from the real America of the 19th century. She is certainly at the polar opposite of Calamity Jane.

Wharton crossed the Atlantic on steamship 66 times in her life. Though she never gave up her American citizenship, and her greatest fictions were set in the United States, she lived mostly abroad in France.

You likely know her from the stories made into movies over decades:  Ethan Frome, Age of Innocence, The Old Maid, House of Mirth, all presenting scandal under the veneer of well-appointed homes.

Indeed, she began writing with an architect about interior design of houses. Though her novels sold and made money, she really had no need of it—except to live the way she wanted.

There was only a hint of scandal in her own life, though she often wrote about its corrosive secrets. She divorced and had one affair with a protégé of Henry James.

She also was the first woman to go to the front at Verdun in World War I and write about it. France considered her a war hero for tireless volunteering to help refugees and children.

Wharton famously has a haunted mansion in Lenox, Massachusetts, where she spent surprisingly little time. Perhaps ghosts frightened her, though she wrote many short stories about the paranormal. Her most famous tale, “Roman Fever,” again focused on upper-crust society.

She loved a good tale, well-told, and was planning a short story on a horror anecdote about the Titanic she had learned, but never actually finished. You might be driven to check out her less well-known tales from watching this documentary.





Aspern Papers: Relief for Headache

 DATELINE: Henry James Tale of Scandal

Untitled 3 Not his Doppleganger!

French director Julien Landais brings his rococo style to the proceedings of the Henry James tale with his usual interest in Dopplegangers (Jonathan Rhys Meyers has the same blue eyes as Alain-Fabien Delon and the director himself). He seems obsessed with his own stunning looks.

The sly novella by the master of manners and psychology, Henry James, is well-played out in The Aspern Papers. As Morton Vint, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is suitably shady as a snooping researcher. He is anachronistic in posture and demeanor (going hatless and with bohemian friends of the 1880s in Venice). He seems to hang around with a bunch of lesbians (shades of the Bostonians).

He wants the love letters of an aging woman and will stop at nothing to put his hands on them. There is no kill-fee here, and he is the progenitor of National Enquirer dirty deeds even back in the 19th century.

Yes, this is a literary film in the Ivory-Merchant mode. Indeed, James Ivory is executive producer—and all the old style is brought back with a cutting edge of nastiness for the 21st century with a young French director in charge.

When the poseur learns that all the papers are hidden by Juliana, one-time lover of Jeffrey Aspern (likely Percy Shelley based on details), he is moved to become ruthless in putting his grubby hands on them.

There is a dark secret here, often hinted broadly in flashbacks that Aspern was bisexual—with a Byronic friend—and Juliana.

All this adds to the charades played by each of the characters.

Joely Richardson (Vanessa Redgrave’s daughter) plays her dull, spinster niece here with no pretense of acting out the role of her aunt every night—as the earlier version with Susan Hayward showed. The old lady was likely Mary Shelley’s sister, Claire Claremont, who had “everything” when it comes to memorabilia of dead poets.

You may recognize strands of Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde before it blows into a full-force cliché to end the movie. It is effective, nevertheless. Here too the ring of Jeffrey Aspern, as in the earlier version, plays an intriguing role as the spinster niece puts a deal to the devil publisher if he wants the literary treasure.

Landais gives us a stunner for his full-length first effort, providing us with a controlled tour-de-force that makes us anticipate his next film. Brilliant, complex work.

Henry James Updated and Up-ended



Onata Aprile as Maisie–and Alexander Skaarsgard as her benefactor

American novelist Henry James wrote some of the most psychologically dense and slow-reading literature of the 19th century. His material is ponderous, long, and brilliant for those with time and mental discipline to tackle his work.

One of his later novels reeks of Victorian Age out of place. What Maisie Knew was daring for the 1890s when he wrote it. The tale of little girl is of Maisie whose ne’er-do-well and profligate parents are divorced and fighting over custody. It seems more like 21st century. Hence, the updated version won’t ruffle a hair on the head of illiterate movie critics.

This time Maisie’s mother is a former rock star, and her father is a roué. They are biological nightmares—but seem rather normal in modern parlance and dress.

Bring in True Blood’s chief vampire in the person of Alexander Skaarsgard as a benevolent caretaker for Maisie, and you have some dynamics against type.

Julianne Moore plays Maisie’s mother in youthful togs. And, the precocious child seems almost ready-made for some modern sit-com with omniscent children.

It all seems completely unlike Henry James (e.g., Daisy Miller and any number of Merchant-Ivory films of the 1970s). Put those Masterpiece Theatre movies out of your mind. This screenplay would bring tears to Henry’s staid eyes when F-bombs are dropped cavalierly in conversation. Somehow we just don’t believe Mr. James contributed to the dialogue.

We’ve seen Shakespeare and Dickens updated, and so Henry James should not escape the time-machine machinations.

Though the plot does not seem apt for the 19th century, the atmosphere of modern world does not quite seem like this is a Henry James story. 

We doubt many viewers of soap opera tales would identify this movie as based on a classic American novel. Movie updates usually confound viewers who think Shakespeare is dull and believe Henry James was the brother of a bank robber in the Old West.


 You may enjoy more reviews and insights in movie books by Ossurworld’s William Russo. Among his more interesting titles:  ALFRED HITCHCOCK FRESHLY SHOWERED and MOVIE MASHUP.  These works are available at Amazon.com in softcover and ebook.