The Estate of Things
By Michael Koresky

The City of Your Final Destination
Dir. James Ivory, U.S., Screen Media Films

Director James Ivory’s first film after the 2005 death of longtime partner Ismail Merchant, doesn’t aim, nor need, to break away from the tradition the two men strove for throughout their forty-plus-year career together. As with so many films that bear the “Merchant Ivory Presents” imprimatur, The City of Your Final Destination is preoccupied with legacy—inheritance, knowledge, generational conflict, the betraying or keeping of familial secrets. This was clearly the subject of their greatest achievement, Howards End, one of cinema’s most metaphorically astute dramatizations of the chasm between the haves and the have-nots, and a work of loving, attentive adaptation—E. M. Forster’s tale of the rise of the British middle-class sprung to life, his delicate balance of tragedy and wryness fully intact. Yet countless other Merchant-Ivory films—especially such less heralded, yet richly realized ones as Heat and Dust, Surviving Picasso, and A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries—also take on the viewpoint of class outsiders reconciling their own social positions with the mysteriously famous, wealthy, or aristocratic. Investigating art and power, these films question the fabric of society, rather than, as Merchant-Ivory detractors have tiresomely complained, unquestioningly luxuriate in fabrics.

The erstwhile duo’s frequent screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, is back on adaptation duties for The City of Your Final Destination, which is adapted from Peter Cameron’s novel of the same name. The team’s taste for the literate and the exotic informs every frame of the film, for better and for worse. Omar Metwally—a seductively good-looking Queens-born actor of Egyptian descent most often seen in roles that exploit his heritage: he was a PLO militant in Munich and a wrongly accused terrorist suspect in Rendition—stars as Omar, an Iranian-American PhD student trying to authorize a biography about reclusive author Jules Gund, who recently committed suicide. Unable to persuade the executors of his estate by letter (the film’s allegedly contemporary world is wholly without email, it seems), he packs up and high tails it to the Gund family’s massive forest-enclosed home in Ocho Rios, Uruguay, at the urging of his take-charge girlfriend, Deirdre (Youth Without Youth’s imposing Alexandra Maria Lara).

With the leaden, exposition-heavy early scenes out of the way, the film, buoyed by Javier Aguirresarobe’s elegant, breezy camerawork, blossoms. Omar arrives unannounced, very much the cultural and familial outsider, and is met with different levels of indifference, anger, and attraction by Gund’s remaining family members and friends. First, there’s the melancholy mistress Arden Langdon, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, whose luminously homely upside-down mouth once again proves made for mourning. With her modern, flowery summer dresses, she’s immediately established in visual opposition to Laura Linney’s Caroline, Jules’s widow, bedecked in tighter, severe black outfits and fitted with the actress’s well-honed penetrating glower. Neither wants Omar to write the book, they reiterate upon his appearance at the foot of their house’s steps. Yet after inviting him to stay at the gorgeous estate, Arden finds herself spellbound by his flirtatious brown eyes, and grows more charitable to his pleas; Caroline, however, continues to be resolute in her decision, even as Omar extends his stay and learns more about Jules’s past and seemingly decadent home life. Then there’s Jules’s brother, Adam (Anthony Hopkins, a tanned dandy here), seemingly less emotionally invested in the public discourse around the late writer’s estate, and whose interest in Omar is wedded to an entirely different kind of project.

Ivory keeps the culture clash light and the drama airy: as far as fiery incident goes, it doesn’t get more sensational than a nasty bee-sting incident. Instead of grand moments, Ivory and Jhabvala extract just enough nuance from the characters and situation to lift the film above its somewhat lethargic pacing. Though the remarkably ineffectual Omar claims passion about the elusive subject of his planned biography, The City of Your Final Destination is hardly a persuasive rendering of that desire, nor does it seem at all interested in Jules per se. Whatever emotional weight the film picks up along the way is illustrated in the small stuff, whether it’s the moving, lived-in expressions of adoration between Adam and his much younger lover, Pete (Hiroyuki Sanada), who’s been a fixture at the house for decades; Caroline’s sympathetic frigidity in her dealings with Deirdre, who arrives in Ocho Rios when an accident lands Omar in the hospital; and especially in Arden’s longing looks at Omar—Gainsbourg’s richly underplayed dewy suffering ultimately becomes the heart of the film.

With its lack of narrative urgency and occasional thudding metaphor (Omar’s oft-stated, and clearly irrational, fear of drowning in quicksand seems an untenable novelistic holdover that Jhabvala should have dropped in draft one), The City of Your Final Destination follows neatly in the footsteps of all of Ivory’s misfit directorial efforts of the past decade—The Golden Bowl, Le divorce, The White Countess— regardless of Merchant’s absence. The film nevertheless has a strange dramatic impact: it’s all soft-edged poignancy, not simply for the way the spirit of the former producer palpably seems to preside over it but also because it breathes a resolute timelessness, a distinct sense that the past can be instructive, if only we, like passive protagonists such as Omar, just listen.