The City of Your Final Destination is the first film esteemed director James Ivory has made since the death of producer Ismail Merchant, his business partner through 49 years of distinguished Merchant Ivory films. With only one-half of Merchant Ivory in operation, can a reputation for literate, civilized and polished motion pictures several cuts above the junk that passes for filmmaking today continue in a market dominated by trash? The answer is a resounding yes. This movie is a triumph.
The City of Your Final Destination, based on the novel by Peter Cameron, assembles many of the cherished Merchant Ivory values: meticulous writing by the Oscar-winning Ruth Prawer Jhabvala; an expertly drawn cast headed by Merchant Ivory favorite Anthony Hopkins; a languid and literary pace that elevates viewers without ever compromising their intelligence; gorgeous cinematography and art direction; and a cinematic elegance as rare in contemporary films as genuine wit. This is a typical James Ivory work, but more deeply wounding and emotionally involving than most. I was transfixed from beginning to end.
Mr. Ivory might work less than he did back in the day, when he was turning out masterpieces like A Room With a View and Howards End, but he has lost none of his style. You watch hypnotically as he unravels the gentle story of a handsome young Kansas University professor of Iranian descent named Omar Razaghi (Omar Metwally, who played the innocent Egyptian-born American engineer falsely accused of terrorism and tortured by the C.I.A. in the excellent Rendition), who is desperately seeking permission to write an authorized biography of an eccentric Uruguayan novelist named Jules Gund. After his request for permission is denied by the family of the deceased writer, Omar is urged on by his strong-willed, ambitious girlfriend, Deirdre (Alexandra Maria Lara), a fellow academic with a domineering personality, to travel to South America in person and hopefully convince the Gund heirs to change their minds. After an arduous and expensive journey across the pampas of Argentina, Omar arrives in Uruguay uninvited at Ocho Rios, the rambling, run-down Gund family estate, where he is met with suspicion and hostility by Gund’s embittered widow, Caroline (an unusually cold and caustic Laura Linney). She reluctantly allows him to stay as a house guest because there is no inn within miles to lodge him, but remains unyielding in her opposition to a book. The rest of the family consists of an odd group of characters more strange and exotic than the dead author himself.
His mistress, Arden (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a former hippie missionary, agrees with Caroline and resents the intrusion until she falls for Omar’s charms. The dead man’s homosexual brother, Adam (Anthony Hopkins), believing the royalties from a biography would pay off property taxes and fearing the damage a nasty book written in retaliation could cause to his brother’s place in the world of letters, becomes Omar’s sole ally, later joined by Arden’s 10-year-old daughter and Adam’s Japanese lover, Pete (Hiroyuki Sanada, the puzzling spy in Ivory’s last film, The White Countess), who entered their lives at age 15 and stayed on as a retainer in the land-rich, cash-poor family for 25 years. Watching home movies of the divided and generally unfriendly family’s history—fleeing the Nazis, carving success in Uruguay as rich foreigners and foolishly squandering its fortune—Omar promises discretion, even as he uncovers enough family skeletons to fill several volumes, aided by a local gossipy dragon surrounded by beautiful boys who knows where the secrets are buried (played with bitchy Tabasco by the great Argentine actress Norma Aleandro). The shy, childlike Arden finds love. Always in need of money, wily Adam convinces Omar to smuggle his mother’s priceless jewels out of the country. Caroline reveals the lost manuscript she’s been hiding of Jules’ final unpublished book. After Omar nearly dies from a bee sting, the film sags slightly with the unexpected arrival of the irritating Deirdre, but her presence is important in explaining the film’s coda, when she meets Caroline years later at the opera and we learn what happened to everyone in the movie and discover the different directions where destiny took them.
Like most James Ivory films, The City of Your Final Destination moves in small, self-contained vignettes, like paragraphs in a novel, taking its time but covering a lot in each scene. As Omar becomes more familiar with the internecine strife between the various couples, the nature and content of his proposed book changes. Every complex member of the writer’s legacy has an agenda, with varying gains and losses, and the power of the film rests in the way it captures so many tangled lives as they cross and intersect at curious angles. The camera is literal, so the film sometimes fails to escape its roots of literary inspiration. This did not bother me. How many times do you get the chance to curl up with a good movie?
Running time: 114 minutes
Written by: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Directed by: James Ivory
Starring: Laura Linney, Anthony Hopkins, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Omar Metwally, Alexandra Maria Lara
3.5 Eyeballs Out of 4
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