Give James Ivory a long-lauded novel (A Room with a View, The Bostonians)—or a decent book by a great author (Howards End)—and he can deliver an adaptation attuned to period-piece nuances and intricate social codes. Hand this filmmaker a piece of fiction set in the here and now, however, and Ivory seems lost; it’s as if he needs decades of distance and a canonized voice to bring out his best work. So it’s no surprise that, even with longtime screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala watching his back, the director never finds his groove with Peter Cameron’s tale about an academic (Metwally) who encounters problems while writing a biography of a late literary celebrity. The loved ones won’t consent; after this would-be Boswell treks down to the family compound in Uruguay, he gets caught up in the lives of the author’s wife (Linney), mistress (Gainsbourg) and brother (Hopkins).
The impeccably photographed landscapes and highbrow talk of the filmmaker’s tony dramas are here. (“You probably just read criticism,” barks Hopkins, the Ivory equivalent of an “Oh, snap!”) But the emotional pull of his classic screen translations is completely MIA, and not even Linney and Hopkins engaging in a thespian-off livens things up. Finality, schminality; it’s like being stuck in a remote way station, awaiting better things.