James Ivory’s contemporary drama The City of Your Final Destination, which longtime Merchant-Ivory collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala adapted from the 2002 novel by American author Peter Cameron, represents a wonderful achievement on all levels. It’s the tale of Omar Razaghi (Omar Metwally), a young Iranian-American literature professor who has banked a university fellowship and his entire career on his plans to write the premier biography on the late Uruguayan writer Jules Gund, not long after that author’s suicide. As the film opens, Razaghi receives an inexplicable letter from Gund’s extended family, refusing to grant him permission to move forward with the project. Deeply confused, and aware of the extent of his losses should the project collapse, Omar books a flight to Montevideo, travels to the Gunds’ sprawling bohemian enclave, and tries to persuade several members of the clan -- including Jules’s younger brother, Adam (Anthony Hopkins), his widow, Caroline (Laura Linney), and mistress, Arden (Charlotte Gainsbourg) -- to retract the initial decision.
The film deftly interweaves and develops several fascinating thematic threads. At the outset, it brazenly declares itself as a study in various shades of control and submission. With an acute eye, Ivory and Jhabvala begin their story in the States, by observing the deeply dysfunctional relationship between Omar and girlfriend Deirdre (a terrific Alexandra Maria Lara), a young woman so shrewish and emotionally domineering that she scarcely gives the passive Omar room to breathe. Indeed, as one character points out late in the film, everything seems to point to the fact that the Gund biography is her brainchild and not Omar’s. We sense all along that Omar exists on a short leash, bound by Deirdre’s whims; when he attempts to win each family member over to his side, he does so via on-the-nose requests that feel entirely credible in their transparency given the marked lack of conviction behind them. The script sets up an uncanny parallel between our initial impressions of Deirdre and (once the action moves to Uruguay) the ice water-veined Caroline, who likewise thrives on power and domination, to the extent that she seems as responsible for the rejection of the biography idea as Deirdre was for initiating it. Jhabvala simultaneously contrasts Caroline’s control-happy nature with the sincere and quiet submissiveness of Arden, and the palpable but non-malicious machinations of Adam, who attempts to use Omar for his own quiet aims.
Jhabvala’s script tantalizes by giving us little insights into the family that invite further deduction on our parts -- such as Adam’s slightly bitter recollection that his brother grew fond of tearing the wings off of butterflies, or Caroline’s calculated extraction of information about Omar’s love life, which she spins around, inflates, and enlists to suit her own Machiavellian purposes in an ensuing scene. Jhabvala’s deliberate semi-obliqueness in these and many other sequences -- her refusal to offer a completely transparent window into the behavior of any one family member -- represents a highly mature decision, for several reasons: because it invests enormous credibility into the film, given the notoriously guarded nature of many aristocratic families; because it keeps the material intriguing; and on the broadest level, because the story’s real focus lies not on the clan itself but on Omar.
The central thrust of the tale, in fact, involves Omar’s inner healing via exposure to the Gunds and their South American surroundings. The filmmakers create a wonderfully delicate love story that develops between Omar and the temperamentally similar Arden. For much of the film’s running time, this romance exists just under the surface of the material (slightly buried and unspoken), but as it emerges gradually, it manages to be as persuasive as anything in recent American movies -- and Gainsbourg implies such vulnerability and need that she gives the story its emotional center. The filmmakers use the romance as the basis for Omar’s coming into his own as a person, an indelibly positive shift in the direction of his life -- a shift directly challenged by both Caroline and by Deirdre when the latter unexpectedly turns up at the Gunds’ estate late in the film. This makes the events that follow as fascinating and gripping as they are exhilarating.
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- Released: 2008
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: James Ivory’s contemporary drama The City of Your Final Destination, which longtime Merchant-Ivory collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala adapted from the 2002 novel by American author Peter Cameron, represents a wonderful achievement on all levels. It’s the ta… (more)