Being a nonfiction writer can be a tricky business, and being a biographer moreso. It’s true in 2019, and was no less so in 1888 when Henry James wrote The Aspern Papers, the source for Julien Landais’ film of the same name. Morton Vint (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is an American writer who is obsessed with the deceased (and fictional) Romantic poet Jeffery Aspern. Having learned that Aspern’s former lover Juliana Borderau (Vanessa Redgrave) may still have letters from him, Vint travels to Vienna where Juliana and her niece Tina (Joely Richardson) are proto-Grey Gardens-ing it in their dilapidated mansion.
Deciding that duplicity is his only course, Vint assumes a false identity and ingratiates himself with the women. Though it’s based on a story rather than a play, The Aspern Papers has a very stylized, theatrical feel, with Rhys Meyers in particular projecting to the cheap seats. That’s not a bad thing, and real-life mother and daughter Redgrave and Richardson also have an understandably believable chemistry. Unfortunately, The Aspern Papers often flashes back to Aspern himself for “portrait of the artist as a young dreamboat” scenes which try to provide backstory where none is needed. It might have looked good on paper, but on screen, Redgrave, Richardson, and Rhys Meyers matching wits is all you need.
Rated R. Opens Friday at the Opera Plaza Cinema.