One might conclude that “Enchanted April” is a story about how two dismal marriages are miraculously rescued by balmy Mediterranean breezes and Italian-vacation sunlight, except that this conclusion might be much the same as Aristotle’s deeply scientific declaration “The effect of sunlight upon mud produces frogs.”
“Enchanted April,” at first glance, is a movie about why the British should go on vacation more. There might not be enough sunlight in Merry England to manufacture enough vitamin D for happiness. I mean, look at Prince Andrew’s current situation: He was a royal, with a vast allowance from the Queen mum—just needed to show up for events, look royal, and say royal things. But, no, he had to go cavorting about and get himself sacked. He must not have been happy. Not enough vitt-a-min D. Maybe the same adrenaline issue that allegedly shut down his ability to sweat also nixed his vitt-a-min D manufacturing ability.
I’ve been traveling back in time and finding movies that are uplifting to the soul. “Enchanted April” is rather beloved on Rotten Tomatoes, with 84 percent of critics thinking it’s (to use a term from 1992, when this movie came out) “the bomb.” Let’s find out why.
For one, it’s extremely pretty; it’s got 1920s flapper fashion, women sunning themselves in full-length dresses, magical Italian country architecture, rustic waitstaff, and many flowers. If Monet was going to paint a movie, he’d paint this. Look at this right here—that’s basically a Monet. Or maybe it’s more of a Degas … a Pissarro? One of those guys.
It put me off at first, due to what my modern thinking viewed as passive-aggressive, fake sweetness on display by women who are oppressed by overbearing, blowhard, cheating husbands.
Except that the only outspoken women in 1920s England were elderly matriarch types. Actually, this is the case in most traditional societies. The wife may not dress-down and talk to the warrior husband with a disrespectful, sharp tongue, but the grandmother can say anything she pleases, and with tremendous acidity if she deems it appropriate.
The 1920s were not a time or place for saying exactly what you think. Society wasn’t like that. Middle-class women couldn’t just up and kick their husbands out the door, willy-nilly; they would have starved. Women never spoke on equal terms with men; people lived in hierarchies, much as the heavenly ranks are described, biblically. This was traditional womanhood.
Lottie Wilkins (Josie Lawrence) is a London housewife who would like to be taken seriously by her husband instead of existing just to cook him meals and prop him up at parties. He’s (Alfred Molina) sort of a slicked-back weaselly fellow, constantly on the prowl for new clients and looking to expand his business.
One day on the tram, Lottie sees an advertisement on the back of someone else’s London Times, describing a dreamy vacation spot in Italy. There’s a castle! Lakes! Wisteria! She feels a deep stirring. She must go. She can’t deal with her husband for another minute.
She talks another woman into going with her. It’s annoying to watch, but if you put yourself in her shoes, with that husband, you might also fall over yourself in a desperate attempt to try to get someone to go with you and make the escape happen.
Come to think of it, this is the exact premise of “Thelma & Louise”: Two women go on vacation to escape one of the all-time greatest screen idiots (Thelma’s husband) and Louise’s unenthusiastic boyfriend (she knows he’s getting ready to propose). So this is a thing: Women going on vacation together to get away from stupid men. I need to find a third example and then I’ll write a book.
A Bit of Joy
The woman Lottie convinces to accompany her is one Rose Arbuthnot (Miranda Richardson). Her husband (Jim Broadbent) writes mildly erotic books, to some acclaim, and has an irritating habit of impersonating a muted solo trumpet. He also—unbeknownst to her—is quite enamored of a much younger, well-to-do fashionista, who, it turns out, becomes the third woman to join the getaway duo, making it a trio.
This third woman, Caroline Dester (Polly Walker), is at her rope’s end, getting endlessly pawed by “grabby” young men—yet another woman fleeing boorish males.
It’s interesting to note that while Lottie and Rose seem, by modern definitions, passive-aggressive and unable to express themselves directly—wafting clouds of fake positivity about to hide their despair—Polly speaks her mind exactly. But she is so debonair, poised, exceptionally gorgeous, and unflappable in the face of insults that one doesn’t notice immediately that she just said something disagreeable that went under the insult radar. Which is the more accurate definition of passive-aggression.
The most annoying (and confident) of the women is the oldest, Mrs. Fisher (Joan Plowright). She’s outlived her friends, and now her friends are a dead poets society of daily reading. She likes to name-drop and brag about the fact that her Italian is not for modern usage, because it is the Italian of Dante. She’s very aggressive with her walking cane, likes to swerve it about with alacrity, and comes close to smacking people in the face with it.
So that’s your main cast. To make a long story short, Lottie tells her husband that she’s going on vacation, and hubby blows his stack. Meanwhile, Mr. Arbuthnot is happy to let Rose go. And so off they go. So far so good.
Arriving in Italy, the four get on each other’s nerves a bit, and then they all settle down and have many languid sunbathing scenes. And you’d think they’d come to the decision to divorce their respective husbands.
But things weren’t so easy for women back then, especially right after World War I. It’s hard to imagine how devastating that war was to the tiny country of England, with so many men gone or irreparably damaged when they returned.
And so begins the true nature and gift of this film. Regardless of how much they’d like to point the finger and place the blame solely on their husbands, all this lying about in hammocks and on rocks beside tide pools is actually a showcasing of the fundamental building block of true spiritual cultivation: They are looking within themselves, and at themselves, for clues, answers, and solutions. This is an enchanted April environment that allows them the time, space, peace, and quiet to morally elevate themselves.
Their characters arc thusly: Lottie, an odd character, is somewhat dense and silly about worldly things, but also almost prophetic. She comes to realize by looking deep within her soul that, as she explains to her new girlfriends, she has been stingy with love. She counted out her love, kept score, and was withholding if she wasn’t loved equally in return. With this realization, her interactions with everyone undergo a shift. As she is coming from a place of love and compassion, even her self-serving husband later changes because of it. Lottie is the impetus for change in the other characters.
Miranda Richardson’s character Rose, often likened to the suffering Madonna, has withdrawn from her husband. Who actually adores her. Is she perhaps a little self-righteous about the way her husband makes a living? Know anyone like that? She also thinks she’s boring and unattractive. Low self-esteem is a considerable culprit in relationships. But that changes due to Lottie’s encouragement, and her own deep desire to reconnect with her husband.
Gorgeous, debonair Caroline is very attached to her looks. She’s aware that this ability to skate through life by looking good has become a problem, and she leaves England to figure out why her life is a mess, despite the fact that she has everything. But a shallow existence is not what she really wants. In a Shakespearean twist that pairs everyone off neatly, she ends up with the estate’s nearsighted host who can’t actually see (or be trapped by) her beauty.
Joan Plowright’s character is trapped by pride and the need to look down on others because of an attachment to status and reputation. But Lottie’s capacity for compassion and basking the old lady in kindness heals her hardened heart.
So Much Joy
As mentioned, the women send for their husbands to come and share in the wealth of sunshine. And due to having put in the challenging inner work of changing their hearts, love and amorous feelings are rekindled.
In Eastern energy practices, looking within and raising one’s moral standard above and beyond standard human emotion can positively recharge one’s energy field. And that changed energy field can affect the energy fields of others. Maybe that’s why the men arrive on the scene and tumble head-over-heels back in love with their wives.
So, if you’re considering marriage counseling, have a gander at “Enchanted April,” and instead of pointing a finger at your spouse, do a vision quest, a pilgrimage, a retreat, a men’s or women’s weekend—any place that facilitates looking within—and find the things you hate about your spouse. Then, embrace the fact that your annoyance stems from the fact that these traits are exactly reflected parts of your own self, which are not really your true self—and learn how to let these notions go. You might not need that marriage counselor after all.
Director: Mike Newell
Starring: Josie Lawrence, Miranda Richardson, Alfred Molina, Jim Broadbent, Joan Plowright, Polly Walker
Running Time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Release Date: April 24, 1992 (USA)
Rated: 3 stars out of 5