“The Aspern Papers” is gorgeous to look at, but this literary melodrama needed more of a lightness of touch. Rating: 2 stars out of 4.
For those of us with a weak spot for literary melodrama — particularly if period costumes involving lush velvet smoking jackets are involved — Julian Landais’ film debut, “The Aspern Papers,” might seem like just the thing. Based on the Henry James novella, itself inspired by the fate of love letters written by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to Claire Clairmont, it’s basically a three-hander set in 1880s Venice. An American editor named Morton Vint (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), obsessed with obtaining the letters written by the late poet Jeffrey Aspern, travels to Venice to meet Aspern’s now-elderly former lover Juliana (Vanessa Redgrave) and Juliana’s still-waters-run-deep niece Tina (Joely Richardson), who is what’s known as The Go-Between.
This all sounds like delicious Merchant-Ivory-ish fun (James Ivory himself is an executive producer) and “The Aspern Papers” is indeed gorgeous to look at, with elegantly fading Venetian palazzos and sparkling canals and the sort of cinematography (by Philippe Guilbert) that makes every scene look like a lit-from-within oil painting. And it’s a treat to see Redgrave and Richardson, a real-life mother and daughter, finding a poignant connection with their characters. Redgrave, three and a half decades ago, won an Olivier Award for playing Tina in a stage version of “The Aspern Papers” on London’s West End; this film represents a touching passing of the baton.
But Rhys Meyers, though he looks smashing wrapped up in all that velvet and cigarette smoke, can’t seem to find a note for Morton other than “woodenly peevish.” Perhaps he was troubled by the American accent (Rhys Meyers, so good as a social-climbing cad in “Match Point,” is Irish), but he delivers his lines flatly, as if stomping on delicate grass in heavy boots. “The Aspern Papers,” brief as it is, needed more of a lightness of touch; if you weigh down melodrama too much, it dies.
★★ “The Aspern Papers,” with Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson. Directed by Julian Landais, from a screenplay by Landais, Jean Pavans and Hannah Bhuiya, based on the novella by Henry James. 90 minutes. Rated R for some sexuality/nudity. Grand Illusion, through Thursday, Jan. 17.