The Aspern Papers provides as much gaudy drama as it does poorly-executed American accents.
Suffice to say, the retelling of The Aspern Papers – a 19th-century novella by Henry James based on the romances of Percy Shelley – stumbles on almost every level outside of production design. (Though it would be hard to make a palazzo resting on the edge of the Venetian canals look unappealing.)
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers takes the mantle of Morton Vint; a mysterious and hectoring author looking to acquire the secret letters belonging to the wealthy former lover, Juliana Bordereau (the always impressive Vanessa Redgrave), of a prodigious deceased poet. Vint takes residence in Bordereau’s picturesque palazzo under the guise of an alias. Here, the slimy author manipulates Miss Tina (Joely Richardson delivering the film’s best performance), Juliana’s reclusive niece who is belittled to the point of being docile, to assist with his pursuit.
What unfolds in The Aspern Papers is a woefully melodramatic and ill-conceived tale of obsession that fails to boil past a simmer. Flashbacks bear a striking resemblance to the salacious romance novels of yesteryear, with the film hellbent on achieving sensual flair over compelling motif. The grand effect detracting from dramatic beats (and there are a lot of them) to the point of hokum.
Rhys-Meyers goes over-the-top in a role that requires panache and composure. He narrates the film as though he were auditioning for the title role in Dexter. It is a treatment that director Julien Landais could have developed further, but instead chose to depict Rhys-Meyers as a devilishly handsome sleuth with the inability to keep the top part of his shirt buttoned-up.