Life and money both behave like loose quicksilver in a nest of cracks. When they’re gone you can’t tell where or what the devil you did with them. – Uncle George Amberson
This movie is a remake of the 1942 movie with the same title, which was written, directed and narrated by Orson Welles (based on the Pulizer prize-winning novel by Booth Tarkington), and starred Joseph Cotton. Welles’ Ambersons was released a year after Citizen Kane (1941). In the aftermath of Hearst’s raining wrath upon Welles and RKO Pictures, RKO took control of the editing of Ambersons away from Welles and released their own butchered version. This 2002 version, directed by Alfonso Arau, claims to use Welles’ original working script.
This is a made-for-TV movie, an A & E Production, which stars Madeleine Stowe, Bruce Greenwood and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the pivotal role of George Amberson Minafer. The movie begins steeped in the opulent beauty of the Gilded Age at the turn of the 20th century, with its pristine mansion estates and party guests dancing in the falling snow accompanied by their maids and valets holding umbrellas over their heads to protect them from the elements. The Ambersons are a well-to-do family in Indianapolis, Indiana – you don’t see many films set in that part of the country (except maybe for “Breaking Away” (1979) – see my review), and is loosely based on Tarkington’s life as an Indianapolis socialite.
George Amberson Minafer is an unapologetic, spoiled rich boy at the start of the film. Rhys Meyers does a good job in the snotty-privileged-inherently-superior-egotistical role, which he replicates as Henry VIII in Showtime’s “The Tudors.” As his Uncle George says to him later in the movie
“I’ve always been fond of you, Georgie, but I can’t say I’ve always liked you . . . there have been times when I thought you ought to be hanged.”
Others in George’s life analyze his issues as “too much Amberson” and “his mother worshipped him since the time he was born.” Unlike other privileged college guys, he does not want the stuffy career tradition of lawyers or doctors – he pronounces that he wants to be a “yachtsman.” He brags about his grandfather Amberson’s real estate fortune, calls other people “riffraff” under his breath, announces his family as “The Family” as if everyone should understand their prominence, and, like any good rich kid, pontificates the following:
I believe the world is like this – there are few people where their birth and position puts them at the top and they treat each other entirely as equals.
Certainly, George knows what he likes, and he has his eye on Lucy Morgan (played by Gretchen Mol), even though he accuses her of being “quietly superior.” There’s only one problem: she is the daughter of Eugene Morgan (Greenwood) whom he despises. Some twenty years earlier, Morgan had courted George’s mother, Isabel (Stowe), but lost out to George’s dad, Wilbur Minafer, perhaps because Morgan is described as a “fairly wild fellow.” As an Amberson, Isabel was quite a catch.
George’s father grows ill as the family fortune disappears through poor investments made by his father and other family members. Upon George’s graduation from college, Eugene comments:
And even the noblest Ambersons get over their nobility, and come to be people in time.
After Wilbur’s death, Eugene and Isabel reunite. But this inspires George’s evil side. He wants to keep them apart. His first strike is attempting to offend Eugene, but George isn’t very forward thinking – while Eugene’s business is making and inventing automobiles, George declares that automobiles are a “useless nuisance” and should not have been invented (you’ll love the ironic ending related to this). He’s also not very politically savvy, as Lucy is Eugene’s daughter, and George is not ingratiating himself to his potential father-in-law.
His father’s sister, Aunt Fanny (played by Jennifer Tilly) eggs George on, because she’s considered an old maid and doesn’t want Isabel to be with Eugene, as Fanny had had a crush on Eugene some 20 years prior. Fanny’s a bit of a Drama Queen and also emotionally imbalanced. Fanny tells George that everyone is gossiping about his mother and Eugene, and saying that they will be married soon (which is somehow a scandal and “evil connotation” in their turn-of-the-century Midwest).
George seethes, pouts, confronts alleged gossipers and learns that “gossip is never fatal until its denied.” He’s more determined than ever to keep his mother and Eugene apart, and slams the door in Eugene’s face when he arrives to take his mother out.
The big question remains: “Will you (Isabel) live your life your way or George’s way?” And a bigger question: Will George ever change?
This is a surprisingly lovely production, with some melodrama and sentimentality, decent acting, lush settings, striking cinematography and appealing period costumes. Rhys Meyers carries the movie on his 25-year-old back and does so with a profoundly stellar performance, although in some scenes he appears to over-act with his reactions (bugs eyes, twisting head, physical pain). James Cromwell has a small but potent role as the grandfather Amberson, while William Hootkins does a fine turn as Isabel’s brother/George’s Uncle George. I would not have cast Jennifer Tilly as Aunt Fanny, as her voice alone is grating.
Though the relationship between George and his mother sometimes seems a tad unnaturally close, this does not stop me from recommending this movie.
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