Lots of smart people believe that the finest fruit cinema’s tree will ever bear is the illustrated great novel. These are people who quiver at the prospect of a film based on anything by Jane Austen; films that are peopled by actors like Alan Rickman or Emma Thompson and faithful to the period and the book. It’s a sometimes-stuffy genre that seems like an extension of the BBC’s Masterpiece Theatre, and most often the late producer Ismail Merchant and the still-laboring James Ivory get credited (or blamed) for the outcome. It’s kind of Classic Comics for grown-ups.
Except, as this film proves, that’s not fair to what Ivory has done. Since the beginning (say, 1965’s Shakespeare-Wallah), he’s worked in a vein of literary tradition closer to A Passage to India than to Emma. Ivory invades the Imperial bedroom to pry out its closeted sorrows—think of Maurice and Remains of the Day—and, in The City of Your Final Destination, he seems elegiacally drawn to the global rootlessness that besets his characters. The story revolves around Omar (Omar Metwally), a rather hapless Iranian English professor who, at the urging of his grimly ambitious girlfriend, travels to Uruguay to convince a dead novelist’s stubborn survivors to let him write the writer’s biography. The South American ranch where they all wind up becomes a steamy metaphor for how we find, create, or, often, manufacture our home base in reality.
It’s all a bit stagy and staid. Omar’s neuroses—he’s afraid of quicksand and falling—become cumbersome symbols, and the movie sometimes does seem like an illustrated book. Ivory may knows how to make quiet stories compelling, but he’s not exactly extending the vocabulary of film. On the other hand, there’s lots of juice supplied by the great Laura Linney as the invisible writer’s long-suffering wife, and Charlotte Gainsbourg as his emotionally enmeshed former mistress. In the end, City leaves us feeling disjointed and tentative about the world these lost souls inhabit. And that’s a long ways from the proper thrills of Masterpiece Theatre.