You keep waiting for something to happen, for the familiar contours of the melodrama to assert themselves and organize the material.
But they never do, which isn't beside the point, it is the point.
James Ivory's combined version of two famed Evan S. Connell novels ("Mrs. Bridge" in 1959 and "Mr. Bridge" in 1969) is a detailed, harsh but not completely disrespectful portrait of the // American upper middle class, Midwest version (Kansas City, Mo.) circa the late '30s and the early '40s. Clearly based on his own parents, Connell's two novels were too artful for cheap sanctimony, but they defined lives that while rich with duty and responsibility were intellectually arid and narrowed with prejudice.
That's exactly the tone Ivory achieves. He could have subverted Connell's vision by casting blowhards or show-offs; instead, with Paul Newman's flinty gravity and Joanne Woodward's good-hearted spaciness, the characters are fundamentally attractive, and the movie begins with the strong suggestion that whomever these people turn out to be, they will matter.
Walter is a shrewd attorney, hard working but rigid as old iron. This gent is your original WASP robot; when he dies, to borrow and twist a Dorothy Parker line, nobody will be able to tell. Yet Connell, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Newman himself imagine Walter whole: He's a man with an inner life, no matter how circumscribed, and he is not incapable of doing good; he just doesn't want a big deal made of it (he doesn't want a big deal made of anything.)
For example, he has weird sexual impulses: A glimpse of his daughter's flesh creates a desire in him he cannot name or acknowledge but he instantly seizes his astonished wife and makes love to her; it's the only time he moves fast. Yet when it transpires that his secretary is in love with him and would be willing to have an affair, he simply cannot imagine such a thing. It is beyond his universe.
His natural state is denial -- of self, of emotion, of progeny, of nature. At one point, he refuses to acknowledge a tornado that is beating at the door. In another, he stiff-necks it through Europe without seeming to even notice that they talk different over there. Yet as sealed and distant as he is, he is still in some inchoate way essential. His stern stuff is unlovable and forbidding but Connell and Ivory and Newman et al somehow understand and communicate that his is the back upon which rests the republic, and they have contempt for those who would too easily dismiss the Walter Bridges of the culture.
India Bridge is more lovable yet also more dismissible. If she had a brain, she put it high on Walter's closet shelf years ago and forgot all about it. She's repressed her personality until she's nothing but the spirit of her husband's whimsy: He is her universe, alpha to omega, and Joanne Woodward gets her feathery ditherings absolutely perfect.
The film progresses by anecdote rather than narrative, gradually acquiring details until the Bridges are as real as the theater; but, being anti-dramatic, it cannot quite satisfy on the level of story. You wait for the Big Revelation and suddenly you notice the movie's been over for half an hour. It's as if you haven't been to the movies at all; you've been visiting distant relatives, and how nice it is to be on the way home.
'Mr. and Mrs. Bridge'
Starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
Directed by James Ivory.
Released by Miramax.