We start at the funeral of the mother of Henry Pulling (Alec McCowan), a staid banker who cares for his flowers more than he cares for anything else in the world. At the funeral, he encounters his Aunt Augusta (Maggie Smith), whom he had thought dead. She is, however, very much alive and tells the suddenly shocked Henry that his mother was not, in fact, his mother. Augusta takes Henry home with her where he is introduced to her current lover, a fortune teller from Sierra Leone she calls Wordsworth (Lou Gossett, Jr.). Henry escapes when he can only to discover after a visit from the police that Wordsworth has stowed marijuana in his mother’s urn.
Augusta is distressed because the love of her life, a man named Ercole Visconti (Robert Stephens), is currently being held for a $100,000 ransom and she is desperate to come up with the money. To help raise the money, she works as a transporter for a criminal named Crowder (Robert Flemyng) by taking his money through Paris to Istanbul for a fee. She takes Henry with her on her latest trip. Henry, straitlaced to an absurd degree, meets a young American named Tooley (Cindy Williams) on the train and experiences marijuana for the first time.
Along the way, Augusta relates stories of her rather dissolute life, giving us a glimpse of her past with Ercole and other men. Stopped at the Turkish border, Augusta attempts to raise the money other ways, eventually stealing a painting by Modigliani that she claims is of her and selling it to Crowder, setting up the final moments and her interesting reunion with Ercole. And along the way, of course, Henry learns that there’s more to life than his bank job and his flower garden, which is always the point of an Auntie Mame-style story.
Travels with My Aunt is one of those films that is sadly less than the sum of its parts. Alec McCowan is pretty entertaining in his role, and he genuinely seems naturally as a frequently outraged man who wants nothing more than to go back to the life he had despite seeming to enjoy parts of his trip. His moments of outrage are completely believable. It’s Maggie Smith who is the real focus here, and her performance is a very interesting one. The makeup is surprising. Maggie Smith was in her late 30s when this film was made, but she looks reasonably like she does right now. In the flashbacks, the age makeup is removed and she looks positively dewy. The character she plays (and she really does play it perfectly) is one of those who is both beloved and annoying, a difficult line to walk. It’s easy to dislike Aunt Augusta, but also difficult to hate her completely.
It’s worth noting that as good as Maggie Smith is, the casting of Lou Gossett, Jr. is absolutely inspired. He’s magnetic in every scene he’s in, possessed of excellent comic timing, and fun as hell to watch. It’s almost a shame he’s not in every scene because he’s easily as memorable as Aunt Augusta is meant to be.
Additionally, the sets and scenery are wonderfully elaborate. Everything drips with decadence, which is there to place us much more in Augusta’s world (or at least her idealized world) than in the world of Henry. Parts of this, even the train carriages and the like, are almost baroque.
And yet…and yet. There’s a lot going on here that’s really good, but there’s just not enough going on here to make the film that interesting. The flashbacks are intended to be these little bursts of opulence and calling back a better time for Augusta, but most of them simply fall flat. The movie would be almost no different without them, and what information we glean from them would be just as easily understood if we were simply told the story by Augusta in conversation. The plot is also incredibly linear. There’s a problem and rather than rising action, there are simply various attempts to solve that problem. When something fails, they try again. When that fails, they try again. The whole thing essentially stays at the same level.
I wanted to like this more than I did and I genuinely liked aspects of it, but overall, I’m relatively disappointed in the whole thing.
Why to watch Travels with My Aunt: The cast is inspired.
Why not to watch: The cast is better than the film.