Yesterday saw the much-anticipated DVD release of Enchanted April, an Oscar-nominated (for Supporting Actress, Costume Design, and Adapted Screenplay) 1992 film adaptation of the much-loved 1922 novel by Elizabeth von Armin. The movie, directed by Mike Newell (Pushing Tin, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and Four Weddings and a Funeral are just three of the many well-known movies he has directed), has a passionate following on Amazon, and the DVD announcement was greeted with unbridled glee. The Enchanted April (and Elizabeth von Armin, although she was better known for her book Elizabeth and her German Garden) is one of those novels that sleeps under an avid cult following for decades, and then bursts out to a surprised and admiring public.
“Charming” is the word most frequently used by casual reviewers to describe the book, the movie, and the story. This is one of the few stories in history where “charming” is not an insulting epithet. The Enchanted April is, actually, a very charming story, charmingly told in the book and charmingly portrayed in the movie.
The story focuses on Mrs. Wilkins and Mrs. Arbuthnot, middle-class British women wilting under the depressing weather of London and the inattentiveness of their seemingly unloving and sometimes petty husbands. Aside from being childless, they are women very much of their time, engrossed in doing good works, finding refuge in religion, keeping their homes warm and cheerful, all the while fighting a general depression and malaise that comes from living, every day to every day, an unfulfilled life with a spouse who doesn’t seem to understand them.
The two women meet over an advertisement in the newspaper. Inviting “those who appreciate wistaria and sunshine” to rent a mediaeval Italian castle for the month of April, the ad opens up the possibility of warmth and beauty to their dreary lives. It does not hint of adventure, exactly, but something perhaps better to women of 1920s Britain: the inner adventure promised by a change of scene, a new prospect, new food, foreign language, and the sea.
Mrs. Arbuthnot and Mrs. Wilkins find two other women to share the expenses of the Italian castle: Mrs. Fisher, an elderly, upright and uptight widow who lives on a daily diet of past memories and dead poets; and Lady Caroline Dester, a beautiful twenty-something society butterfly who is sick of late hours, parties, and men who are constantly chasing her.
The castle, with its cornucopia of flowers, gentle seaside cliffs, and expressive Italian servants, is a different world for these four women trapped in the confines of their various London lives. They, as is to be expected, find peace in Italy, and get back in touch with something like themselves.
Mrs. Wilkins and Mrs. Arbuthnot eventually invite their husbands to join them, and the husbands, rather unexpectedly, find a new appreciation for their loving and rather pretty wives in the soft light of an unpopulated Italian seaside. The modern addiction to throwing adultery around at every opportunity is thwarted when a previous attraction between Lady Caroline and Mr. Arbuthnot is tossed over as he rediscovers his wife. Mrs. Fisher learns to enjoy the company of the living in addition to the dead past, and Lady Caroline finds escape, and, we hope in the end, love.
It’s a lovely story, and Mike Newell’s adaptation has turned into a well-loved classic. The movie starts out perfectly in the depression of a rainy, gray London winter, and moves into the warm beauty of Italy. Many of Britain’s now best-known actors bring Elizabeth von Armin’s complex and likeable characters to life: Miranda Richardson (Rita Skeeter in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) as Mrs. Arbuthnot, Jim Broadbent (Bridget Jones’s Diary) as Mr. Arbuthnot, Joan Plowright (Tea with Mussollini) as Mrs. Fisher, Polly Walker (Emma) as Lady Caroline Dester, and several others.
The movie loses a bit when it shifts from straight story-telling and scene in Britain to an emphasis on internal monologues in Italy. While von Armin did present all four main characters’ viewpoints throughout the book — their doubts, desires, and changes — the practice comes off as a little stiff in the movie. And while Newell uses many of the story’s best lines, much of the humor of the book lies in the irreverent and judgmental comments the characters think at one another, which acting can only take so far.
But in the end, the movie is, as many reviewers have commented, a charming little gem, a relief of beauty and brightness. The DVD brings to life one of those rare stories of the world: Enchanted April, without being sentimental or wishy-washy, tells of how everything dreary in your life can change simply by changing your location, and with it, your perspective.