“How could any outsider understand this place?”
A two and a half hour round trip to see a movie may appear crazy on the surface, but when it’s for opening night of something as well put together as the 360|365 George Eastman House Film Festival, all is completely sane. Attending the first screening wasn’t in my original plans; I was supposed to just arrive for the weekend. Thankfully, though, I decided to throw caution to the wind and drive up for director James Ivory and his newest work, The City of Your Final Destination. It was my first foray into the Merchant Ivory world, and a perfect entry point in my opinion. The gorgeous landscapes washed over me, the acting was superb—according to Ivory himself, this is his ‘talkiest film ever’—and the story, based on a novel by Peter Cameron, takes you away to this secluded little world of Ocho Rios where an eccentrically composed family resides in self-exile since the death of acclaimed author Jules Gund, the glue that brought them together.
I was always under the impression that these endeavors were more period pieces of pomp and circumstance, winning awards but feeling bloated and like a chore in the process. Never did I expect the wit and humor involved here, cutting through the drama of relationships and politicking for biography authorization rights on behalf of the lead Omar Razaghi (Omar Metwally). Banter between characters was in abundance, laced with sarcasm and biting as words hit their mark. When you have roles that leave a bit to be desired on the cordial side of societal interaction, you do begin to delight in the ability of some to leave others speechless. And no one does so better than Laura Linney as Gund’s widow Caroline. She is the stubborn one, wanting to preserve the legacy of her husband—perhaps with ulterior motives as to why—and intelligent, knowing her side of things and never allowing a pandering outsider to chip at her defenses. She is the unreasonable one and says as much herself. Linney has always done wonders as strong women, but this role risked tipping over into unavoidable villainy. Luckily, as Ivory points out, that is why a likeable actor is cast as an unlikeable character; instead of appearing evil, she merely appears human.
And humanity is the driving force behind the film. With an international menagerie inhabiting this European wonderment of living quarters, built in Uruguay by the elder Gunds after escaping Nazi Germany, their interactions are a necessity to the story’s success. It’s an odd arrangement as the main house has both the American widow and British mistress, (Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Arden who came to live with them at 18 once pregnant with Gunds’ daughter Portia), while the second residence includes brother Adam, (although they use Anthony Hopkins’ photos as a young man to depict Jules, his character is in fact eight years older, not a twin), and his Japanese lover Pete, (the always interesting Hiroyuki Sanada). Living together works as they are closed off from the real world, unknowing of the loneliness building inside. Only when this young Ph.D. candidate arrives, despite being rejected by the family as far as writing a biography went, do they discover there is more to life than Ocho Rios; without Jules, they no longer have to stay. But Caroline has taken Arden in as a sort of daughter, recalling how helpless she was when she arrived—leaving her isn’t a topic to take lightly, no matter how stir-crazy she’s going, painting and listening to music without anyone to talk to.
Metwally’s Omar is not only the catalyst to awaken each member of the extended Gund family, but also a character needing to evolve as well. His journey begins for us sinking in quicksand, chasing after a dog that had gotten away. Looking at his life in that moment showed he wanted none of it, a change was necessary to become more independent, something impossible with his controlling girlfriend Deirdre, wonderfully played by Alexandra Maria Lara. His trip to Uruguay alone is the first step towards the rest of his life, bringing the isolated subjects of his planned novel a taste of civilization while learning about freedom and living in the moment, things that never seemed within his grasp. His horizons are expanded, his inhibitions rendered non-existent, and then a fateful bee sting causes his two worlds to collide. Deirdre arrives to nurse her boyfriend back to health, but also to expedite the attempt at getting Adam, Caroline, and Arden to sign off on the book. Lacking any tact in communicating with ‘impractical’ artistic types, a fact making her relationship with Omar seem completely out of character, she only drives all parties away, throwing a wrench into the organic interactions Omar had been building. Her arrival is the last straw for them all to finally look beyond past motivations and for once do something selfish, something that will make them happy—to hell with anyone else.
The attention to detail at work is impeccable, from the locations utilized—the Argentinean land doubling for Uruguay was actually scouted back in 2004 with the late Ismail Merchant, Ivory’s longtime producing partner—the distilled script from frequent collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala to the authentic art direction and breathtaking cinematography from Javier Aguirresarobe. Each character evolves during the course of the film, becoming the people they aspire to be, a state they never felt they had the right to attain. It’s a spiritual awakening where love is distilled down to its most pure fiber; it’s simple really, you love what it is you love, there doesn’t need to be more justification than that. Ocho Rios has a hold on each and every one of them, beckoning some to return and stay, while others to escape and live once more. There is a choice for all, one that isn’t always convenient, but crucial to their happiness. It’s all so endearing and familiar, showing that one is never too old to change everything. They all love each other in some fashion—a feeling that will never go away—but until the end, you never get to see their full potential unencumbered by invisible constraints. With a brief epilogue three years later, we catch a glimpse of two characters with unwavering voices, horns locked for supposed perpetuity, changed with the passing time. It just goes to show how life only moves forward; it is up to us to swim with the current and live. What a wonder it is to see the absolute bliss possible once true happiness is finally attained.
The City of Your Final Destination 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½
 Laura Linney
 Omar Metwally
photos courtesy of Merchant Ivory Productions.