Verena Tarrant, the daughter of a Boston faith healer, is appearing at a private seance with her father. In attendance are Olive, a social reformer, and her cousin Ransom, a Southern lawyer. As Verena gives an inspirng speech about women's rights, both of these individuals are attracted to her. They become instant rivals for her affections.
Olive convinces Verena's parents to let their daughter move in with her. She has hopes of possessing the young woman and using her as a spokesperson for the women's suffrage movement. However, Verena is drawn to Ransom, a blatant chauvinist who believes that women can only be fulfilled as subservient wives.
Realizing that she is in danger of losing Verena, Olive spirits her away to a country cottage for a vacation, only to have Ransom follow them. The older woman wins this battle as Verena rededicates herself to their cause. They look forward to her triumphant addresss before a large Boston audience, but when the young orator realizes Ransom is present, she is paralyzed and cannot appear on stage. He whisks her away, leaving the defeated Olive to speak for the cause she so fervently espouses.
The Bostonians, adapted from the 1896 novel by Henry James, has been produced by Ismail Merchant, directed by James Ivory, and written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Similar to their last movie, Heat and Dust, this is a literary work with exquisite production values especially the luxuriant cinematography of Walter Lassally.
The bad news of The Bostonians is the miscasting of Madeleine Potter as Verena. Her listless and banal performance misses the allure of this pivotal character who so bewitches Olive and Ransom. The good news is Vanessa Redgrave's towering depiction of Olive, a Puritanical spinster who despises men and longs for close female companionship. Christopher Reeve is just right as Ransom; he embodies the man's virile masculine strength and domineering love.
Also good in supporting roles are Nancy Marchand as a pushy society matron; Jessica Tandy as a leader in the New England women's movement; Linda Hunt as a clear-eyed doctor who has some keen insights into sexual politics; and Wesley Addy as Verena's manipulative father. These intriguing characters convey the different sides of Boston social life in the late nineteenth century.