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DVD Review: Enchanted April (1992)

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Enchanted April is based on the 1922 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim (titled The Enchanted April), which tells the story of two middle-aged English women who decide to pool their funds together with two other strangers and rent a castle in Italy for the month of April in order to escape their miserable lives and failing marriages, for a little while.

Lotty Wilkins (Josie Lawrence) is a good cook and housewife — someone presentable enough to enhance her solicitor husband’s reputation. Mellersh (Alfred Molina) appreciates his wife, but he is more concerned with gaining clients and making money than with her happiness. Rose Arbuthnot (Miranda Richardson) is a pious woman — and one of Lotty’s neighbors, although they know each other only by sight — married to an author (Jim Broadbent) who, using a pseudonym, makes a decent living writing scandalous stories about historical women. He spends his nights wining and dining with the upper crust who lavish attention on artists and authors, while she spends her nights at home in prayer, ashamed of who he is. Neither of them seem to care much for the other’s lifestyles.

When both Lotty and Rose find themselves drawn to the advertisement about the small, Medieval Italian castle, Lotty convinces Rose that they should be the ones to rent it, telling her that she sees them there. In order to defray the costs, they find two other women to join them: a young, rich socialite (Polly Walker) who is weary of men fawning over her all of the time, and an old, well-connected woman (Joan Plowright) who spends more time thinking and talking about the great people she knew in the past than truly living in the present.

At first it seems that this combination of personalities is destined to end up in conflict, but whether it is the Italian seaside or Lotty’s vision, the four women begin to blossom and connect with each other on a deep level. The transformation doesn’t stop with just the four of them, and by the end of the story, they have all rekindled (or began anew) relationships with their loved ones.

Enchanted April was previously adapted for both the stage and film, the latter of which produced a 1935 flop starring Ann Harding. When producer Ann Scott shared the novel with director Mike Newman, they agreed that it would be a good film to produce, and Scott attempted to get funding from film companies. However, after being told that it was “too small, too English,” they eventually were able to get backing from the BBC to produce it for television. It is unfortunate that the film companies at the time were so limited in their vision, since it turned out to be something quite special that deserves the kind of budget and quality of a production destined for the big screen (it was released in US theaters a year after it’s British TV debut in 1991).

There are not many action sequences, as one might expect, but there are many scenes that capture the feeling of time slowing to the point of almost stopping and allowing the women to almost forget the things that drove them away from their homes to this near-Eden. This is a film that tells the story by showing it to the viewer, letting the conversations and inner dialogues of the characters flesh out the details. With a look or a posture, the actors deftly convey their character’s emotional and mental states without falling over the cliff of over-acting or relying on stock characterizations.

For the 2009 DVD release in the US, Miramax has included a commentary track by the producer and director, and it is the only extra feature aside from a handful of trailers. Newman does most of the talking, mainly regarding the weather. It rained most of the time they were in Italy, not that you would know it from the perpetual sunshine of the film. The two share other tidbits of making the film, the actors, and other relevant trivia, but mostly their comments seem to center on how what we are watching is either not the way they would have done it if they had more money, or that it was luck that allowed them to capture the scene the way they did. It is an interesting commentary track, but the story told in the film is so compelling that I found myself getting drawn into it and being annoyed by these people who kept talking over it.

Enchanted April is a beautiful story about the transformative power of love. It is a must-see for anyone with a heart who enjoys English period pieces, if the fine performances of Golden Globe Award-winning Miranda Richardson and Joan Plowright, as well as their co-stars Josie Lawrence and Polly Walker, are not reason enough.

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