(1984)2.5Derek ArmstrongChristopher Reeve was best known to audiences as the Man of Steel. It may be surprising, then, that his next most consistent engagement was appearing in Merchant-Ivory movies. Nearly a decade before his role in The Remains of the Day, Reeve starred in James Ivory's The Bostonians, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's adaptation of the Henry James novel. There are several reasons The Bostonians is a lesser film in the Merchant-Ivory canon, but Reeve isn't one of them. Playing a detestable guardian of the patriarchy, who considers women better suited for motherhood than intellect and governance, Reeve nonetheless turns in a seductive performance, one that might undermine a would-be feminist in spite of herself. Such a role reminds viewers that just because Reeve was an icon, it didn't mean his range was limited to Superman. The film on the whole doesn't fare quite so well, despite tackling some important issues in the women's movement (suffrage), and hinting at others which, if given a name, would have been too risqué even for 1984 (the probable lesbianism of Vanessa Redgrave's Olive Chancellor). The Bostonians does generate a bunch of useful discourse, but other than that, it suffers from a lack of specificity. The action moves restlessly between locations without a plot-driven reason, spending relatively little time in Boston all told. And it's never quite possible to feel sympathy for the three main characters. Miss Chancellor's motives for her oratorically gifted protégé may be socially progressive, but even protecting Verena from Reeve's Basil Ransome feels like an oppressive act, designed to restrict her attentions to the movement -- and to keep her unattached. Meanwhile, young Verena (Madeleine Potter), vacillating between these two controlling influences, just seems weak and passively dishonest, a result of her lack of self possession.