28-year-old Kansas University doctoral student Omar Razaghi (Omar Metwally) has been awarded a grant to write the biography of Latin American writer Jules Gund. When Gund’s estate unexpectedly denies Omar authorisation, Omar is urged by his girlfriend to travel to Uruguay and petition the executor to change their minds.

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14 Oct 2010 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 14 Oct 2010 - 12:00 AM

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Ivory without Merchant films a bloodless, dreary tale.

Ponderous title, creaky plot, pathetically weak lead character, languorous pacing, almost total absence of emotional heft"¦ Director James Ivory’s first solo effort since Ismail Merchant, his producing partner of 50 years, died in 2005 is an elegantly photographed, lifeless bore.

Focusing on a wannabe author who intrudes on a dysfunctional family in rural Uruguay, The City of Your Final Destination is but a faint echo of a bygone era when Merchant Ivory delivered stately, impeccably-made period films of the calibre of The Remains of the Day, Howard’s End, A Room With a View and Heat and Dust.

Completed in 2007 but only now securing a cinema release, the film also squanders the formidable talents of Anthony Hopkins, Laura Linney and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Based on Peter Cameron’s 2002 novel of the same title, the screenplay by longtime Merchant Ivory collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala follows Omar Razaghi (Omar Metwally), an Iranian-born literature teacher at the University of Colorado.

To secure his job and earn a doctorate, Omar elects to write a biography of Jules Gund, a Latin American author who committed suicide. Gund’s family refuses to co-operate but prodded by his domineering girlfriend Deirdre (Alexandra Maria Lara), who’s also a literature teacher, Omar sets off for Uruguay hoping to change their minds.

There he encounters the late writer’s imperious but beautifully dressed widow Caroline (Ms. Linney), his older, gay brother Adam (Hopkins), Adam’s much younger Japanese lover Pete (Hiroyuki Sanada), Gund’s mistress Arden (Ms. Gainsbourg) and her young daughter Portia (Ambar Mallman) fathered by Gund.

Caroline dismissively rejects the intruder’s pleas but Adam expresses his support (he has an ulterior motive, hoping Omar will smuggle his late mother’s jewellery out of the country) and the lonely Arden is sympathetic.

After there’s an accident involving Omar, Deidre turns up, which leads to some prickly confrontations. However, the narrative poses more questions than it answers, including: No one seems happy, so why have they remained under the one roof since old man Gund died? Gund wrote just one book, about his parents’ life in Germany before they immigrated to Latin America, so why is he a ripe subject for a biography, particularly as the feckless Omar promises not to write about the salacious details?

Omar and Deirdre have zero chemistry and indeed spend most of their time bickering, so why have they been an item for two years? For literature teachers their conversation is exceedingly mundane.

Clunky bits of exposition explain how Gund met his wife and mistress and that the brothers went to school in England; but why does Portia speak with an American accent?

It also emerges that Adam and the 40-year-old Pete have been together for 25 years, which would make Pete 15 when they met, and Adam legally adopted the teenager: truly icky.

None of the characters is particularly engaging, there’s minimal dramatic build-up, virtually no passion in a late-developing romance, and the ending is highly contrived and unconvincing.

It was Metwally’s first lead role after playing supporting characters in Rendition and Munich, and to be brutally frank he’s out of his depth, lacking both presence and charisma. Omar is 28 but the actor looks a lot older (born in 1972). Moreover, Adam refers to him as 'very beautiful" and Caroline and Arden both say he’s handsome and charming: that may be how the book describes the character but Metwally is no hottie in today’s parlance.

Hopkins brings his customary guile and stagecraft to the role, Linney is suitably brittle, embittered and condescending and Gainsbourg is good as a vulnerable recluse, but none is well served by the material. Javier Aguirresarobe’s sumptuous cinematography and Jorge Drexler's moody, Latin-tinged score are pluses.

Neither Ivory nor Prawer Jhabvala (who are both in their 80s) seems to understand that today’s cinemagoers demand a higher level of energy and emotion, dramatic momentum and compelling reasons to connect with or invest in characters than audiences of 15-20 years ago.

Details

PG
1 hour 58 min

Genres