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In 'Enchanted April,' good things happen to four good women


'Enchanted April'

Starring Josie Lawrence and Miranda Richardson.

Directed by Mike Newell.

Released by Miramax.


*** 1/2

What would the English do without Italy? They might go ahead and get married, but they'd probably never have sex.

And, in fact, Italy as incubator of the libido for the frosty bourgeois druids of the drizzly isle is a theme made most famous by E. M. Forster, but also used by lesser writers, notably Elizabeth von Arnim, who wrote her novel "Enchanted April" in 1921 in a castle overlooking the Mediterranean. Now comes a movie version, filmed in that same castle, and it's an enchantment itself.

In her own time, von Arnim was called the "Jane Austin of her day"; in our time, she is called . . . "Who?" But on the evidence of the film, with its script by playwright Peter Barnes, she was a shrewd, prescient observer of the turf war between boys and girls. Even if "Enchanted April" actually derives from that ancient and hackneyed schoolboy theme, "What I Did Over My Summer Vacation," its true text is self-realization as driven by a faint but definite current of feminism. Each of the four women who moves into the castle on the first day of April is something of a victim; when she moves out at the end, she's been healed, her relationships have either been rescued or initiated, and she is happy, fulfilled and made whole again. She has saved her own life.

The movie plays as if it were made by the Merchant-Ivory team drunk on champagne; it has that highly refined, ironic surface, exquisite production values, exceptionally droll dialogue. Its sense of place is absolute and the story proceeds in the earnest, orthodox rhythm of classic English narrative. But it also has something conspicuously absent in the Merchant-Ivory oeuvre, which is a giddy sense of fun. It's lighthearted as a butterfly. This is a surprise and a half, as the director, Mike Newell, has made his small reputation on a number of bleak films, notably "Dance With a Stranger" and "The Good Father." He must have fallen in love or something.

The movie opens in a dreary and rain-soaked post-Great War London where two much put-upon women, a Thelma and Louise their own time, conspire to make a get-away when they spot a castle-to-let advert in the Times. Lottie (Josie Lawrence) is married to an ambitious yet somehow sniveling lawyer; Rose to an arrogant novelist who keeps her in the dark while pursing other -- sometime female -- interests. Both women have been shut out of their husband's lives.

However, they cannot quite afford the castle's complete rent, so they sublet to two others, the formidable Mrs. Fisher (Joan Plowright), who might be described as a dreadnought in skirts, and the delicious Lady Caroline Dester (Polly Walker) who would never be described as a dreadnought in skirts. Mrs. Fisher seeks merely to rule all with an iron hand; Lady Caroline seeks surcease from the ennui of her fabulous life. "It's so tiring being at the center of attention all the time," she sighs. Then she turns to Lottie and Rose and says, "Don't you agree?"

Agree? They don't even know what language she's speaking!

In any event, the four take up residence in San Salvatore, and Newell has wonderful fun evoking the sheer glory of the place with its sun-splashed grottoes, its gardens so dense and pristine they seem sublet from the original proprietors of Eden, and its heroic terraces overlooking a wine-dark sea. They have no trouble adjusting to the place (who would?) but settling in takes some effort. Lady Caroline is content to purr in the sun, fluttering eyelids the size of manhole covers in response to all queries, fully aware that men will soon come flickering toward her; meanwhile, the armored Mrs. Fisher begins issuing declarations of war while dropping names like 10-ton bombs. She Knew Writers and in her world, Knowing Writers is Important. (Poor Rose asks if she knew Shelley; Mrs. Fisher huffs that she did not, nor did she know Shakespeare or Walter Scott; Rose smiles meekly and everybody in the audience wants to drill the old bat with a spoiled carp.)

As showy as Lady Caroline and Mrs. Fisher are, both as characters and as vessels for two extraordinary actresses (Plowright is a scream), Lottie and Rose are the co-equal centers of the piece. Neither Lawrence nor Richardson has quite as much to work with, yet each manages small miracles: Lottie, for example, the "solid" one, blooms radiantly. Rose, for her part, always something of a loose cannon, seems to lock into her own core.

Alas, soon enough, men arrive. These include two husbands -- one of whom may not have been coming to see his wife -- and a nearsighted landlord, and a gentle rondelet of partner adjustment soon ensues. But the principle or rearrangement is not cruelty so much as that of higher benevolence. Von Armin's universe, unlike Forster's, is not secretly savage; class distinctions don't explode into violence and the place is ventilated only by zephyrs of the drollest irony, never hatred, smoldering resentment, the excruciating cruel whimsy of bad things happening to good people. In this place good things happen to good people. You end up feeling as if you're the one on the vacation.

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