DVD Review Of Mr.
& Mrs. Bridge
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/24/06
Having recently read the masterful separate books Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge, by Evan S. Connell, I was anxious to see the 1990 Merchant/Ivory film that combined the two books into one, Mr. & Mrs. Bridge. While not a bad film, it falls far short of the books. Yes, it’s a trite thing to state, but it’s also true, and there are a number of reasons why the film ultimately fails, especially so if you’ve read the books before seeing the film. Yet, the film is lushly filmed, impeccably acted, and a very solid production, a cut above typical Hollywood tripe. Paul Newman, as small-minded, stodgy attorney Walter Bridge, far outshines his real life wife Joanne Woodward, who plays his onscreen wife India Bridge. It’s not that Woodward’s Oscar nominated performance is bad, but the adaptation from the books really short shrifts the character. In both of the books India Bridge is seen as a dull, small-minded, repressed, and petty Depression era hausfrau, with intangible longings to ‘do something’ with her life. The film one dimensionalizes her into a frustrated bohemian eccentric- a slightly loony mom who cannot control her three kids.
In a nutshell, that’s what’s wrong with the film as a whole. And what is all the more frustrating with this film is that while most films necessarily strip layers from a novel, the very way the two Bridge books were written were so poetic and filmically geared, written in blackout sketches, that merely by following the daring writing style to a T would have left any decent screenwriter with a sure Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay. Instead, the film takes unconventional novels and conventionalizes them. How or why this was done is beyond me. Even if there was by necessity a desire to film the two books as a single movie, why lose the antiphonal structure of some of the key scenes in both books, that reference the same incidents from parallaxed points of view? After all, neither the books nor the film follow a straightforward narrative structure, they are slices of the Bridge’s lives. That said, the film bounces around in time, putting scenes that occur later in the books earlier in the film, such as the Bridges trip to Europe and coming home as the Nazis invaded Poland. This occurs less than halfway into the film, yet it is near the end of both books. It sets up their son Douglas’s (Robert Sean Leonard’s) passage into manhood as a GI recruit in the books, as he then is made ready to assume the family head, when his father dies early in the war. In the film the jaunt is used merely as an excuse to film in Europe. There is no real reason for the trip to be accorded any import. Similarly, scenes of daughter Carolyn’s (Margaret Welsh’s) wedding and Ruth’s (Kyra Sedgwick’s) moving to New York City’s Greenwich Village, are done too early in the film, and are merely excuses to have a wedding scene, and shoot New York jazz clubs. In the book they have deeper familial significance. Yet, there are deeper flaws in the filmic versions of the tales.
Let me now give you some of the key errors where the film goes terribly awry from the two books. In the books there is a scene of great import, where Carolyn’s fiancé confronts Mr. Bridge over his refusal to grant permission to marry his daughter. He views the fiancé as a golddigger, or a weight about his daughter’s neck, and in Mrs. Bridge the scene simply states that the fiancé stormed into Walter’s office, and later that day the two men emerged jolly and with Walter’s approval granted. In Mr. Bridge, written ten years after the first book, we see the same scene in greater detail. The fiancé refuses to leave Walter’s office, then lances the lawyer to the quick:
‘‘You have three seconds to start moving!’
‘One, two, three. Bull!’ the boy said, lifting three fingers, ‘Cork told me your folks lived in Sugar Creek.’
It was after dark when they left the office. Gil Davis said he ought to be catching the bus to Lawrence, but Mr. Bridge invited him to spend the night at the house. There was room enough, and it was time he met Mrs. Bridge.’
What goes unsaid is that neither book explores the Bridges’ lives before their marriage. They are as if ciphers. But, the mention of Walter’s home town, and its phrasing, implies the rich lawyer came from poverty, and the immediate switch from its utterance to his acceptance of his future son-in-law reveals the depth of the pain and memories its mention must hold. But, the film utterly destroys the moment. Instead of doing a filmic cut from its utterance to their agreement- as on the page!- instead, the fiancé then mentions he knew a pharmacist from the town, Walter smiles, acknowledges the man, and it’s assumed that fond memories of home is what united the two. Very, very poor dramatic choice!
Another poor choice involves the underlying repression of the Bridges’ sexuality that threads through the book, especially Mr. Bridge’s. The film has a poor scene where his secretary throws herself at him, that is far more over the top than that in Mr. Bridge, and the film merely shows Mr. Bridge looking at his older daughter Ruth- the bohemian- as she sunbathes in the yard, with veiled curiosity. In his book, the scene is set as Walter passes his younger, more staid daughter Carolyn’s bedroom, and sees her naked in a mirror. He cannot get the image out of his mind: ‘He reminded himself that she was his daughter, but the luminous image returned like the memory of a dream.’ In the book Connell really strikes the perfect balance between the denial of such thoughts and voyeurism. And by cutting off further mention of the moment we not only read that Mr. Bridge is in denial of his carnal feelings, but we feel it. The film gives us none of that by taming down the moment and switching it to the ’bad girl’ daughter, rather than the ‘good daughter’.
Another scene in the film has Walter going over stocks with his wife at a bank, and advising her over which are good investments. In the book, Walter gives all his family members stocks for Christmas, and advises them. See what I mean about the film neutering of what was best in the books? Even the end of the film disappoints. It ends with India stuck in her car, as it stalls in the garage door, so she cannot get out of it, as Walter comes home with flowers. Then we get home movies, and some title cards that state that all the Bridges basically lived happily ever after, with Douglas becoming a lawyer in his dad’s firm. The two books, meanwhile had fabulous ends. India, in Mrs. Bridge, is stuck in her garage, but it is after Walter’s death, Douglas’s assumption of the family head, and no one hearing her pleas for help. Mr. Bridge ends just before his death, at Christmas, with him singing at church, still full of himself. How director James Ivory or screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala could have even remotely thought the banal home movies, with a happy end, was a good ending is stupefying, even mystifying. And, again, given the filmic nature of the books, and the heights they reached, to ignore such is unconscionable artistic stupidity. The non-Bridge supporting characters also suffered great strip mining at the hands of Jhabvala and Ivory.
As for the DVD, the transfer is very good, and the film’s colors sparkle, but the only feature is a trailer for the film, and a promo trailer for Miramax, the studio that released the film. I’d’ve loved to have heard a commentary with Connell and Ivory, debating why the best parts of the book were so muted, but that’s just me, I guess. Overall, the film is far too anomic to retain much viewer interest- even for those fans of slower British PBS fare, and I’d love to see a director skilled at character films, like Steven Soderbergh, who’s fond of remakes anyway, take a stab at this material. His 1998 film The Limey, is one of the great character portraits on film, and if he stayed true to the masterful books it would be something to see him do a pair of films based upon the books, that stayed true to what made them so great. Imagine, films based upon books so based on filmic techniques- conundra galore!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Laura Hird website.]
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