E.M. Forster was twenty-six when his first novel appeared in 1905. Where Angels Fear to Tread is crammed with social satire, sexuality, yearning and disillusionment. The novel, in which a group of inhibited Britons try to remain untouched by their brush with passionate Italy, lacks the formal maturity of Forster’s later Howards End and Passage to India, but its youthful exuberance carries the day.
Director and co-writer Charles Sturridge (TV’s Brideshead Revisited) has caught the spirit of the novel; it’s a stinging comedy of manners. It’s fun to watch the widowed Lilia Herriton (Helen Mirren) shock her family by impulsively marrying and getting impregnated by the hotblooded, much younger Gino (Giovanni Guidelli) on a visit to Tuscany. While the widow’s companion Caroline Abbott (Helena Bonham Carter, without whom no period film seems to be made) is swept away by the romance, Lilia’s lawyer brother-in-law, Philip (Rupert Graves), and his rigid sister Harriet (Judy Davis) are appalled by the foreign intervention.
Sturridge gets the best out of a splendid cast, especially Mirren, who displays an ardent sensuality. Davis is a howl showing Harriet’s discomfort at the opera, but Harriet’s fear of emotion also has tragic consequences. The film isn’t as adept at delineating the clash of cultures as Merchant-Ivory’s Room With a View, but it’s rich and provocative nonetheless.