Dir: James Ivory. US/France. 2003. 115mins.

Fans of film-makers Merchant Ivory should not fear that they have abandoned the literary classics altogether with their latest film. While Le Divorce is set in today's Paris, with hip young actors like Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts in the lead roles, it feels like an old-style Henry James saga of culture clash, rigid etiquette and subtle intrigue. It is in fact The Portrait Of A Lady in modern dress, with Glenn Close in the Madame Merle role and as much repressed passion as Henry James could muster. It has the mood and tone of a period piece, with little grasp on contemporary reality, but it still has myriad pleasures. With its glittering multi-national cast and the reliable hand of Ivory behind the camera, it should become a must-see for upscale filmgoers who relish a sophisticated comedy of manners. Critics will be lukewarm, but adult audiences will be unable to resist its allure, when it opens in the US this weekend. It will easily outperform the last two Merchant Ivory Ivory-directed efforts The Golden Bowl and A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries and could well be the team's biggest hit since The Remains Of The Day. It enjoys an international premiere Out Of Competition at Venice.

Merchant Ivory were planning to film The Portrait Of A Lady some years ago with Glenn Close as Madame Merle, but were beaten to it by Jane Campion, who instead cast Barbara Hershey. Diane Johnson, author of the popular 1997 source novel, was herself an American who has lived in Paris who wanted to update James' concept of American naifs being influenced by the old world.

The film begins briskly with the arrival in Paris of young Isabel Walker (Hudson's character, a thinly disguised take on Portrait's Isabel Archer) from an affluent, but not too rich, family in Santa Barbara. She has flown over to spend the summer with her sister Roxeanne (Watts) who is pregnant with her second child by her husband Charles-Henri de Persand (Poupaud). But as soon as she arrives at the couple's (sumptuous) apartment, he walks out - abandoning his expectant wife and daughter for his Russian lover.

The film details the subsequent divorce proceedings which are by turns comic and tragic. Under French law, the scoundrel Charles-Henri is entitled to 50% of his wife's possessions - which include the Walker family heirloom, a portrait which could be by 17th-century French artist Georges De La Tour.

Among the characters who flit in and out of the sisters' lives are the imperious de Persand family matriarch Suzanne (Caron), her handsome diplomat brother Uncle Edgar (Lhermitte) who embarks on an affair with Isabel, the Walker parents (Waterston and Channing) who come over to Paris to console their daughter, a distinguished novelist called Olivia Pace (Close) who hires Isabel to work for her, Olivia's other assistant Yves (Duris) who also beds Isabel, a divorce lawyer (Barr) who woos Roxeanne, a variety of art experts (Neuwirth and Fry among them) who are brought in to evaluate the painting and an unstable entertainment lawyer (Modine) whose wife has left him for Charles-Henri.

The biggest problems here are of tone. For the most part a frothy comedy of manners, the story spirals into attempted suicide and murder which are presented with a levity which belies the pain of the characters involved. Modine's character on whose actions the film's resolution lies is absurd, while the French traditions on show here are strictly aristocratic and reflect little of contemporary French mores and culture.

Still Hudson and Watts are charming, there is a witty motif in the Hermes Kelly bag, and the inimitable Merchant has scored access to Parisian locations which other film-makers would envy. When Euro Disney refused to allow the film to shoot its climactic kidnapping in its theme park, Merchant secured permission to shoot at the top of the Eiffel Tower itself.

Prod cos: Merchant Ivory, Radar Pictures
US dist:
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Int'l dist:
20th Century Fox
Exec prods:
Ted Field, Scott Kroopf, Erica Huggins
Ismail Merchant, Michael Schiffer
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala & James Ivory, from the novel by Diane Johnson
Pierre Lhomme
Prod des:
Frederic Benard
Richard Robbins
John David Allen
Main cast:
Kate Hudson, Naomi Watts, Thierry Lhermitte, Leslie Caron, Glenn Close, Stockard Channing, Romain Duris, Sam Waterston, Nathalie Richard, Melvil Poupaud, Bebe Neuwirth, Matthew Modine, Stephen Fry