About the Film
The era when upstart America challenged the ancient privileges of Europe is portrayed in The American, an adaptation of Henry James's darkly romantic novel. Published in 1877, The American helped establish Henry James's reputation as a brilliant novelist of the national character, a subject he returned to in "Daisy Miller," The Portrait of a Lady, and other works.
Set in 1868, the story follows the fortunes of Christopher Newman (Matthew Modine), a 19th-century "new man" who has amassed a fortune in California and heads to Europe to learn its ways and find a wife. The American opens as he arrives in Paris, naïvely receptive to all its charms and mysteries. One charmer is Noémie (Eva Birthistle), who copies paintings in the Louvre for a living and entices him into a business and sexual relationship.
But Newman is more matrimonially inclined toward a young widow he encounters, Claire de Cintré (Aisling O'Sullivan), who is in constant company of her funereal brother Henri de Bellegarde (Paul Hickey). Ever the forthright American, Newman calls on the family at their mansion, where his overtures are discouraged in no uncertain terms by Claire's imperious mother, Madame de Bellegarde (Diana Rigg). Claire's brother Valentin (Andrew Scott) is far more receptive to the brash visitor and befriends him. This friendship, along with the sympathy of the maid, Mrs. Bread (Brenda Fricker), permit Newman several assignations with Claire, who turns out to be tortured by the memory of her late husband, an aristocratic monster foisted on her by her mother.
Newman becomes obsessed with Claire and breaks off relations with Noémie, who soon ends up in Valentin's arms. Deeply possessive of his mistress, Valentin blunders into a duel with another claimant for her affections. Mortally wounded, he hints at a scandalous family secret to Newman -- a revelation that could provide the key to wresting Claire from her mother's clutches.
In an interview with the London Daily Telegraph during shooting, Matthew Modine gave his thoughts on the film and his character: "The American is a fantastic love story laced with intrigue. It's got elements of Romeo and Juliet -- a story about forbidden love. I also liked the idea of the fish out of water, this nouveau riche American who is lost. He has achieved things, but there's still an emptiness in his life. He thinks that maybe the way to fill it is to go to Europe and to try to understand the history of people who have money. When he gets there, he meets someone as lost and confused as he is."
Essays + Interviews:
About the Film | A Talk with Screenwriter Michael Hastings
A Talk with Diana Rigg | A Talk with Matthew Modine
The American on the Printed Page
Essays + Interviews | Who's Who | A James Timeline
Teacher's Guide | Genius in the Family | Henry Wants a Hit!
The Forum | Links and Bibliography
Home | About The Series | The American Collection | The Archive
Schedule & Season | Feature Library | eNewsletter | Book Club
Learning Resources | Forum | Search | Shop | Feedback
Masterpiece is sponsored by: