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Sunday, 6 October 2013

Book of the film - Where Angels Fear to Tread

Published in 1905, when Forster was 26, this debut novel is regarded as a modern classic. He only published six novels.  He was inspired by journeys to Italy with his mother (in 1901). For a young man’s debut, it is accomplished. It’s written from an omniscient point of view, so that we hear the author as much as any character’s thoughts, which was – and perhaps still is – the fashion in literary fiction. It begins as an Edwardian comic piece but towards the end turns into a tragedy.

As it’s omniscient, the book’s an ideal vehicle for filming, with some great dialogue. Starring Helena Bonham Carter, Judy Davis, Helen Mirren and Rupert Graves, this 1991 film is faithful to the book. Doubtless due to the running time, some of the humorous pieces from the beginning were omitted or cut short. The music by Rachel Portman enhances the narrative.
The young widow Lilia Herriton (Mirren) tours Italy, leaving her daughter with her mother-in-law. She’s chaperoned by neighbour Caroline (Bonham Carter). When Lilia announces her marriage to Gino (Giovanni Guidelli), an Italian a dozen years younger than her, there are ructions at home and Philip (Graves) is despatched to put matters right. Philip is accompanied by his sister, Harriet (Davis). However, Philip is ineffectual and fails in his mission. To say more would spoil the story.
Edward Morgan Forster

Forster intended that the book should be about the improvement of Philip, according to one of his letters. Yet much of the first portion of the book is as much about Lilia and her rocky relationship with Gino and Philip’s implacable mother, Mrs Herriton.
Mirren and Guidelli

The editor for this book states that he finds the book ‘flawless – in the perfection of its structure, its subtle use of leitmotifs, etc.’ Much of the ‘etc’ I can agree with, but not the structure, which I found uneven, and some of the head-hopping quite annoying.

However, what won me over were Forster’s acute observation and his humour. There are many brief examples of the latter, and I’ll provide a few here: ‘Florence she found perfectly sweet, Naples a dream, but very whiffy.’
When learning of Lilia’s outrageous behaviour, Mrs Herriton fumes, ending with, ‘I am going to the kitchen , to speak about the range.’ She spoke just too much, and the cook said that if she could not give satisfaction she had better leave.

For three years (Philip) had sung the praises of the Italians, but he had never contemplated having one as a relative.
Philip’s sister Harriet accompanies him on another mercy mission to Italy and when asked about her ticket, she replied, ‘A single for me, I shall never get back alive.’ Perhaps because she held the view ‘foreigners are a filthy nation.’

Towards the end, Philip deduced that ‘For our vanity is such that we hold our own characters immutable, and we are slow to acknowledge that they have changed, even for the better.’ And that’s the case, though there is a neat little twist ending, which is retained in the film.


Richard Sutton said...

Already a huge fan of Forster's later work, I'm going to find the film! Thanks for the recommendation.

Nik said...

The film's well done, Richard, but not as emotionally engaging as it should have been, considering the tragedy; that's not the fault of the actors.