The City of Your Final Destination is as pure an example of the Merchant Ivory brand of upscale literary cinema as devotees of Howards End, A Room With a View and The Remains of the Day could ask for. But times have changed. Partly because the rarefied aesthetic climes conjured by the film barely exist anymore, its story feels as quaint as the once-vital Merchant Ivory ethos of hothouse nostalgia — with its antique-shop sensibility and Anglo-European snob appeal — does.
Ismail Merchant, the producing partner of Merchant Ivory, died in 2005, leaving the director James Ivory (now 84) to go it alone with this adaptation of Peter Cameron’s 2002 novel of the same name. Ten years have passed since it was published, but they might as well be a lifetime given the changing cultural climate in the age of the Internet, not to mention the precarious economy. (This film, originally released in 2009, opens in theaters in Taiwan today.)
Anthony Hopkins, Laura Linney and Charlotte Gainsbourg, playing cultured, cosmopolitan residents of a remote estate in Uruguay, are among the actors who lend the film a classy imprimatur. As their characters philosophize and bicker, you bask in a refined sensibility shaped by Chekhov, Henry James and E. M. Forster, in which privileged people with time on their hands fret about money, endlessly chew over the past and allow their minds to eat themselves.
The story follows the quest of Omar Razaghi (Omar Metwally), an Iranian-born graduate student at the University of Colorado, to gain permission from the family of Jules Gund, a Latin American author who committed suicide, to write Gund’s authorized biography. Omar’s academic and financial future depends on his writing the book, and when the Gund family unexpectedly denies permission, his bossy, live-in girlfriend, Deirdre (Alexandra Maria Lara), pushes him to fly to South America to change their minds.
The City of Your Final Destination
Directed by: James Ivory
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Omar Metwally, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Hiroyuki Sanada, Laura Linney
Running Time: 117 Minutes
Omar arrives unannounced at the lavish Gund estate, presided over by Jules’s imperious widow, Caroline (Linney), and his older brother Adam (Hopkins). Also in residence are Jules’s girlfriend Arden Langdon (Gainsbourg); Arden’s young daughter, Portia (Ambar Mallman); and Pete (Hiroyuki Sanada), Adam’s much younger male Asian lover of 25 years.
Omar ends up staying at the Gunds for a period of time during which he has a tepid flirtation with Arden, wins the support of Adam — who tries to enlist him in a smuggling scheme — and pressures the intransigent Caroline to change her mind.
Adapting a novel with this many thematic strands and symbols (quicksand, for one, an apiary for another) into a fluent film has its obvious pitfalls. The screenplay by the longtime Merchant Ivory collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala gamely tries to camouflage reams of exposition necessary for the plot to advance smoothly. But too often you hear the machinery clicking, and the narrative energy eventually dissipates. Lacking the nuggets of illumination that lend a Chekhov play its universality or the refined moral scrutiny of a James or Forster novel, “The City of Your Final Destination” feels trivial, despite its high tone and impeccable manners.
Playing the film’s thorniest character, Linney gives by far its sharpest performance as an unhappy widow who yearns to flee South America for New York. Caroline implies that she is withholding her permission to protect all kinds of dark family secrets, some of which may be revealed in an unfinished manuscript.