Format: Internet video on laptop.
I was a couple of minutes into Mr. & Mrs. Bridge when I realized I was in trouble. I went into it not knowing that it’s a Merchant/Ivory movie. I don’t want to talk Merchant/Ivory down, but I do have a bit of a history with them. That history is easily summed up: I don’t like them that much. They are routinely gorgeous and apparently historically accurate in terms of costuming and the like, but I also routinely find these films to be emotional slogs concerning people I really don’t care about. I’ve liked one or two of their films, though, and I do always attempt to like what I’m watching, so I forged ahead, worried but hopeful.
It’s nice to give a movie the benefit of the doubt, but in the case of Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, it didn’t deserve it. This is perhaps my least favorite type of movie. This is little more than a character study of two people I genuinely dislike. Rather than having a plot, it has episodes, and rather than reaching a conclusion, it simply ends. Despite a good cast, there is not a character here that is sympathetic or worth spending time around.
In brief, Mr. & Mrs. Bridge is about a married couple living in Kansas City in the late 1930s and early 1940s. They have three mostly grown children. They are relatively wealthy. And—and this is the point of the film—they are entirely set in their ways and beliefs and products of their time. These are the sorts of people who were completely untouched by the Great Depression. While not corporate fat cats or robber barons, they managed to get through the worst economic time of this country unscathed and apparently without noticing that anything was going on. They have a massive house, a servant, cars, and the ability to take vacations to Europe.
Walter Bridge (Paul Newman) is a lawyer. His wife India (Joanne Woodward) is the sort of woman of the era who has given her entire life to her husband and children without much for herself. Okay, she has friends and plays bridge and has a servant, but in her mind, she has sacrificed her life for the benefit of her husband. Both of them are entirely mired in their own sense of morality, which is to say that they are both entirely beholden to the way that Walter sees the world. Walter seems to do all of the thinking in the relationship. India is the sort of woman who, upon being married, immediately subsumed her entire identity into that of her husband, a woman who signs her name as “Mrs. Walter Bridge,” for instance.
What the film is really about, more or less, is the fact that their three children don’t seem to want to be straitjacketed into those same moral constraints. Daughter Ruth (Kyra Sedgwick) doesn’t want to get married and live the life her mother did, which seems to be the life her father has planned for her. She instead wants to go to New York and become an actress. Walter agrees, giving her $1000 (roughly $17,000, a good indication of the family wealth) that she can live on until the money runs out, at which time she has to come home. Walter is convinced that she will be home soon enough. Other daughter Carolyn (Margaret Welsh) does want to get married, but she wants to get married on her own terms, which in this case includes marrying the son of a plumber who has no real prospects of his own. Son Doug (Robert Sean Leonard) wants to join the military rather than simply wait to be drafted, and at one point is involved in the scandalous practice of (gasp) dating a Mexican girl.
To all of this, Walter maintains a resolute position that he is correct in all things and that disagreeing with him is disagreeing with truth, justice, and the American way. In one scene, he resolutely sits at a country club restaurant table eating his meal while a tornado approaches outside, convinced that nothing bad will happen to him. In fact, he tells India that she should sit with him since he has never been substantially wrong on anything. India, on the other hand, is a bit of a dreamer, coming at the world with a strange naivety that at least has a veneer of everything being good and right with the world on the surface, since that surface is what is really important to her. When her best friend (Blythe Danner) overdoses on sleeping pills, it conflicts with that world that she has created, but soon enough, she has a way to convince herself to right that ship. India is the sort of woman who agrees with the last thing she read or heard.
Joanne Woodward’s performance is the reason this came across my radar. It’s a good performance for what it is. In truth, Woodward is forced to have that sort of naïve optimistic view of everything while having serious doubts about her own life, meaning, and even the value of her marriage working underneath the surface. In that respect, her work is pretty nuanced.
So, it’s a good performance, but what is it in service of? Everyone in this film is arrogant, selfish, or vapid, or a combination of all three of these qualities. I hated spending time with all of them and I’m glad I won’t have to watch this again.
Why to watch Mr. & Mrs. Bridge: Like all Merchant/Ivory movies, it’s pretty.
Why not to watch: Holy shit, all of these people need a punch in the face.