Just one more sad step in the tragic film history of “The Magnificent Ambersons,” this A&E remake based on Orson Welles’ screenplay adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel is a run-of-the-mill period soap opera that demonstrates little depth or style. Directed by Alfonso Arau (“Like Water for Chocolate,” “A Walk in the Clouds”), the dual romance story, while occasionally picturesque, tends to be marred by acting that alternates between the empty and the overwrought. Viewers unfamiliar with the original and unconcerned with what could have been will see only three hours with name actors but not an iota of chemistry. Welles’ fans will be intrigued to see some of the scenes that were removed from the original when the director lost control of the pic, but they also might imagine him turning over in his grave to have his name associated with such blatant mediocrity.
It would be a lot easier to judge this pic on its own merits if it has started from scratch with a new screenplay. Instead, we get scenes that are exact replicas in terms of dialogue (mostly taken from the novel) from the 1942 film, but filmed in a more traditional manner, with Welles’ long, wide-angle takes replaced by establishing shots that soon give way to constant cutting between talking heads. While visually less evocative, this doesn’t address the main flaw, which is simply that the actors seem to have not received any direction, all of them approaching the material from different routes.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers (“Velvet Goldmine”) plays the young, arrogant George Minafer, grandson of the town’s wealthiest and most prominent citizen, Major Amberson (James Cromwell). In the opening scene at the ball, George falls for Lucy Morgan (Gretchen Mol).
Their attraction is noted by their parents, since George’s mother Isabel (Madeline Stowe) was teenage sweethearts with Lucy’s father Eugene (Bruce Greenwood), who is in the midst of amassing a fortune in the newfangled automobile business.
George courts Lucy while at the same time trying to keep his mother from Eugene, even after George’s father passes away. The larger cultural story concerns the decline of the Amberson family estate due to the Industrial Revolution.
Rhys Meyers has a terrific 19th century look, but his performance is far more tense than intense. In almost every scene, his eyes look like they’re about to pop out of their sockets, his jaw is tight and his lips quiver. It’s supposed to communicate overconfidence, but it looks more like psychosis.
This isn’t the spoiled scion of a once-illustrious family, but a cartoon figure trying to jump off the page, and the fact that every scene is delivered at the same pitch means the narrative arc of this character-driven story is severely flattened.
Jennifer Tilly is miscast as the homely Aunt Fanny — Agnes Moorhead in the original. Tilly captures the character’s fussiness and her essential loneliness, but she too is so exaggerated a figure to give the later drama a muted impact. In comparison to these two over-the-top portrayals, Stowe and Greenwood retreat into the background of the film.