A turn-of-the-century costumer about cold-blooded Brits thawing out in sunny Italy, Where Angels Fear to Tread is a far more rewarding dip into the E.M. Forster tub than some of its predecessors. Paralleling the 1905 book’s light, serio-comic tone, pic has none of the top-heaviness of David Lean’s A Passage to India or the starchiness of Merchant-Ivory’s A Room with a View.
Feisty widow Lilia (Helen Mirren) goes to Italy for some r&r with younger companion Caroline (Helena Bonham Carter) and tangles with Tuscan boytoy Gino (Giovanni Guidelli). When news reaches home, Lilia’s bossy mother-in-law, Mrs Herriton (Barbara Jefford), dispatches milquetoast son Philip (Rupert Graves) to buy off the hot-blooded Italo. That idea goes down the tubes when the pair reveal they’re already hitched.
Pic’s strength is the way in which characters come in and out of focus. Lilia, it turns out, is simply a catalyst: true love affair is a sexually blurred triangle of Philip, Caroline and Gino.
Helmer Charles Sturridge tweaks what could have been a talky telepic into a proper theatrical product. Like his previous A Handful of Dust, pic plays well on the big screen, with tasty Italian vistas, sharp pacing and (apart from a few static interiors) sequences that really move.
Bonham Carter, who gives her strongest performance to date as the repressed Caroline, is ably supported by Graves. Duo’s final scene, a Brief Encounter-like meet in a station, packs real emotional clout.