Title: Travels with My Aunt
Language: English, French, Italian
Genre: Adventure, Comedy
Director: George Cukor
Jay Presson Allen
based on the novel of Graham Greene
Music: Tony Hatch
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
Louis Gossett Jr.
José Luis López Vázquez
A George Cukor picture made in his twilight years, TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT is adapted from Graham Greene’s skylarking eponymous novel, and marks Dame Maggie Smith’s much awaited follow-up to her Oscar-winning turn in THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (1969), resultantly is blissfully bestowed with an Oscar nomination No. 3.
Playing the titular aunt, who is twice of her real age (by virtue of the able make-up artist José Antonio Sánchez), of London bank manager Henry Puling (McCowen, nearly a decade senior of Smith), Maggie’s Augusta Bertram enters Henry’s sedate life like a down-in-the-mouth raven during the funeral of Henry’s mother. A long-lost aunt who has a flamboyant dress sense, an ear-piercing voice and eccentric make-up, from whom Henry receives the first bolt of blue that the woman whose ash he is holding is not his birth mother, and there’s more to come.
The film looks exceptionally rumbustious in the hands of a septuagenarian, a giddying caper globe-trots from London to Paris, then hopping on the Oriental Express to Istanbul and back, culminating in the terra firma of North Africa. Admittedly not everyone can stomach the whole package of garish fluff and ceaseless palaver prima facie, but once the ransom-collecting story-line is established, Augusta and Henry’s adventure eases up into a more affable romp interspersed with Augusta’s reminiscences of her youth and sundry love affairs.
Maggie Smith’s frivolously loquacious personage briskly corroborates the time-honored proverb “never judge a book by its cover”, beneath all her self-absorbed wittering and jitters, Augusta emerges as a heart-of-gold, hopeless romantic even after toiling in the oldest profession for most of her life, and we can never quite decide whether she is dimwitted or not, when you think she is, she can gainsay it by intuitively snaffling something costly to shuck off her financial fix, so you opine maybe she isn’t, then, how come she could be so credulously hoodwinked along the way?
To counterpoint Smith’s pyrotechnic extravagance, Alec McCowen’s fusty nephew is tagged along with mild bewilderment but seldom loses his grip of his composure and slips into a plebeian laughingstock, he can be exasperating sometimes, but cunningly proves that he is worth his salt in the final reveal. Among the peripheral players, Louis Gossett Jr. is the cock of the walk as Augusta’s currently live-in partner, an African fortune-teller called Wordsworth, who makes no bones about smuggling marijuana inside an ash-ful urn and also lords over le quartier rouge in the Continent.
A plush-looking, brassy-sounding, but ultimately spirit-elevating felix culpa doesn’t desecrate Cukor’s cachet, like its freeze-frame ending implies: coins have only two faces, and there is no one definite answer to the triad’s final question because life is far more multifarious than that.