A Gorgeous, Empty 'Ambersons'


Director Alfonso Arau brings his unique, sensual vision to
The Magnificent Ambersons, a telepic based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Booth Tarkington.

It's not the first such interpretation. The story was told as a silent film, A Pampered Youth,
before Orson Welles famously tried his hand in 1942.

A&E Network's interpretation should be judged on its own, and on its own it has grave faults. The chief problems are the sterile love match at the film's core and its faithfulness to the novel's dialogue, on which some characters seem to choke.

Sadly, some fine contemporary actors aren't comfortable without modern slang, and Johnathan Rhys Meyers (who portrays Georgie Minafer, the heir to the Amberson fortune) is one of them. Many of his line readings are simply painful and that keeps you from dipping into his character.

The story centers on the fall of a rich family whose business, aside from being rich, is unknown. James Cromwell is properly gruff as the patriarch, Major Amberson. He dotes on his beautiful daughter, Isabel (Madeleine Stowe), but controls her, as he does all in his household.

The brood is comfortable letting Daddy call the shots, as long as the money flows. Pop rejects the poor-but-bright Eugene Morgan (a noble and likeable Bruce Greenwood) in favor of the more proper Wilber Minifer (David Gilliam), who comes as a package with his whining spinster sister, Fanny (Jennifer Tilly, who is especially grating).

All is well until years later, when the spurned lover returns to town as a financial success, with a stunning daughter, Lucy (Gretchen Mol), in tow.

At that point, the film really kicks off. Lucy toys with Georgie and — in shades of her dad's romantic destruction — spurns the boy because his plans for the future are limited to living off the Amberson fat. He retaliates by rejecting Eugene again — now as suitor to the widowed Isabel.

Arau paints with a lush palette, and the scenes and costumes are precise. But he creates a mother-son relationship that goes beyond doting to borderline incest — a valid interpretation, but creepy to watch.

The novel's grandeur is in the family's descent due to its stony grasp on past glories. The film's emphasis on the love stories cheapens it to melodrama.

The Magnificent Ambersons
debuts on A&E on Sunday, Jan. 13 at 8 p.m. EST/PST and 7 p.m. in the central time zone.