The Europeans (film)

The Europeans is a 1979 British Merchant Ivory film, directed by James Ivory, produced by Ismail Merchant, and with a screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, based on Henry James's novel The Europeans (1878). It stars Lee Remick, Robin Ellis, Tim Woodward and Lisa Eichhorn. It was the first of Merchant Ivory's triptych of Henry James adaptations. It was followed by The Bostonians in 1984 and The Golden Bowl in 2001.

The Europeans
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJames Ivory
Produced byIsmail Merchant
Written byRuth Prawer Jhabvala
Based onThe Europeans
by Henry James
StarringLee Remick
Robin Ellis
Wesley Addy
Lisa Eichhorn
Music byRichard Robbins (score)
Clara Schumann (theme)
CinematographyLarry Pizer
Edited byHumphrey Dixon
Distributed byEnterprise Pictures (UK)
Levitt-Pickman (USA)
Release date
  • May 1979 (1979-05) (Cannes)
  • July 1979 (1979-07) (UK)
Running time
90 min
CountryUnited Kingdom

The plot follows the interaction between two European siblings and their American cousins. Facing hard times in Europe, Eugenia, a Baroness by marriage, and her younger artistic brother arrived for the first time in New England in the 1850s to meet their wealthy maternal uncle and their three cousins, the Wentworths. Their bohemian sophistication and alien ways dazzle some of their puritanical American relations and wary others.

The Europeans was the first of Merchant Ivory's films with the approach for which they will become identified with: a period drama, done with a modest budget, but featuring lavish costumes and sets with top actors portraying genteel characters who suffer from disillusionment and tragic entanglements.


The Wentworths are a prosperous family living in an estate in a suburb of Boston in the 1850s. The family consists of the dour father, Mr. Wentworth, and his three adult children: Gertrude, Charlotte, and Clifford. Their quiet existence is shaken by the unexpected arrival of almost forgotten European relatives. The Europeans are Felix Young and his older sister Eugenia Münster who are cultured, witty and broke. Felix is interested in painting while Eugenia, sophisticated and alluring, is a baroness as the morganatic wife of a minor German prince.

On his arrival at the Wentworths' state, Felix first meets Gertrude, the nonconformist Wentworths daughter, who is shirking attendance at church and reading romantic literature instead. After introducing himself, he stays over for dinner while she is soon intrigued and enchanted by her cousin. The next day Eugenia pays them a visit and meets not only the four Wentworths but also Robert Acton and his sister Lizzie who are the Wentworths' cousins by another side of their family. Eugenia drops backhanded compliments to the befuddled silence of the modest, upright Wentworths. Robert and his sister are more cautious and suspicious of Eugenias's intentions. After Felix and Eugenia have left, the family debates what to do. Since they are relatives, Mr. Wentworth puts them up in a neighboring cottage on his property. Felix installs his art studio there and suggests making a portrait of his uncle. Mr. Wentworth declines, but Felix takes on painting Gertrude instead. Felix wonders why his American relatives seem so little concerned for the pleasures of life, living by strict standards, seeming not to think of their own individual happiness.

Eugenia sets her eyes on the Wentworth's wealthy cousin Robert Acton, who is torn between his captivation with the Baroness and his distrust of her European worldliness. Eugenia refers little to her marriage other than telling him she has a paper the husband's family wishes her to sign which would dissolve the marriage. During a ball at the Acton's house, Eugenia is introduced to Robert's ailing mother who she manages to charm. At the ball, Clifford has too much to drink and when Mr. Wentworth complains about it to Felix, he suggests that his sister influence might help the wayward youngster to improve his behavior, and indeed, Clifford begins visiting Eugenia. Meanwhile, Felix and Gertrude are falling in love. Gertrude tells him her father wants her to marry the Unitarian minister, Mr. Brand, though she doesn't love him. Felix, noticing how Gertrude's pliable sister, Charlotte, seems attracted to the minister speaks to Mr. Brand, implying as much redirecting his feelings away from Gertrude and towards Charlotte instead. One evening, Robert Acton who has been away a few days (and is beginning to believe he is in love with Eugenia even tough for him love is an overrated feeling) goes late to visit her. Clifford was with Eugenia at the time and she makes him hide in a back room. When Clifford comes unexpectedly out of his hiding place, there is a very awkward moment. Clifford leaves and Eugenia lies about why the young man was at her home. Later, in talking with Clifford, Mr. Acton realizes she had not told the truth, and Eugenia's lies begin to weigh upon his thoughts, and he loses interest as Lizzie outflanks the baroness in her attempt to win her brother.

Meanwhile, Felix tells his sister he wants to marry Gertrude; Eugenia lies to him claiming Robert Acton asked her to marry her, but she is not sure she wants to. Felix makes a visit to his uncle and asks for Gertrude's hand. Mr. Wentworth is bewildered at first, but his other daughter, Charlotte, speaks in favor of the match, then Gertrude comes in and declares she will marry Felix, and finally Mr. Brand comes in to say he would like to marry the young couple. Understanding that her goal of finding a wealthy man in the United States has failed, Eugenia decides to go back to Germany. She makes a farewell visit to Mrs. Acton, sees Robert as she is leaving and lies to him claiming to have sent the annulation papers to Germany. Mr. Acton expresses regret that she has decided to leave and offers his carriage to Eugenia for her use at her departure. Felix will stay in America and will marry Gertrude. Clifford would be paired with Lizzie Acton. Mr. Brand and Charlotte will also later marry, far more suited to one another than Gertrude was to Mr. Brand.



The Europeans was shot between October and November 1978 on locations using interiors of the period in Barrett House, and Bullard-Barr House both in New Ipswich, New Hampshire; Gardner-Pingree House and Salem Maritime National Historic Site both located in Salem, Massachusetts; Lyman Estate in Waltham and in Concord, Massachusetts.

The film is notable for its look of New England countryside in Autumn with its striking reds and oranges, capturing Henry James's sense of ambivalent wonder at the New World in New England.


The Europeans was a modest arthouse box-office success in England. It became Merchant Ivory Production most widely seen film up to that point.

The film received a number of lukewarm reviews as a somewhat over-literary adaptation. Critic Chris Elliot noted the movie's "opaque refinements and elusive intentions, a predilection for intricacies of language and manners." Roger Ebert similarly demurred that the movie "elegantly composed visuals, the stately progression of the scenes, the deliberate understatement of the dialogue, are all as "faithful" to James as a film can be. But that's exactly the film's problem: Ivory hasn't found a way to make his own film, and has ended up with a classroom version of James, a film with no juice or life of its own".[1]

Writing for the New York Times, Vincent Canby compared unfavorably the film to the novel: "The beauty and precision of James's prose that persuades us his characters are as alive today as they were in 1878. There's nothing quaint or picturesque or foolish about them. They are battlers. This is the feeling that's missing from the otherwise remarkably intelligent, careful screen version of The Europeans that has been adapted with skill by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and directed with affection by James Ivory."

John Pym reviewing the film commented:" For all its engaging sidelong playfulness, the beauty of its settings, some excellent performances, there is in Ivory's Europeans also a sense of genuine characters trapped somewhat awkwardly by the conventions of their lines."[2]

Awards and nominations

The Europeans received many nominations but no wins. It was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival; for Best Costume Design (Judy Moorcroft) at the 1980 Academy Awards; for Best Foreign Film at the 1980 Golden Globes Awards; and for Best Costume Design, Best Production Design and Best Supporting Actress at the 1980 BAFTA Awards.

Home media

In 2003, a special edition DVD of the film was released as part of The Criterion Collection. The special features include an on-camera interview with the Merchant-Ivory team: Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and composer Richard Robbins.

The DVD also includes: Sweet Sounds (1976), a 29-minute documentary film directed by The Europeans' composer Richard Robbins.[3] It follows a handful of children chosen for a music development class as they're instructed by their music teachers at NewYork's Mannes College of Music Preparatory School in New York City of which Richard Robbins was then director.[3]


  • Long, Robert Emmet. The Films of Merchant Ivory. Citadel Press. 1993, ISBN 0-8065-1470-1
  • Long, Robert Emmet. James Ivory in Conversation. University of California Press, 2005, ISBN 0-520-23415-4.
  • Pym, John. The Wandering Company: Twenty-one years of Merchant Ivory Films. BFI Publishing. 1983 ISBN 0-85170-127-2.


  1. Ebert, Roger (22 February 1980). "The Europeans". Chicago Suntimes. Retrieved 13 December 2019.
  2. Pym, The Wandering Company, p. 85
  3. Pym, The Wandering Company, p. 73
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