Travels with My Aunt Dull stuffy bachelor meets flamboyant eccentric aunt, who seeks to show him the world’s pleasures. Sound familiar? While based on a Graham Greene novel, “Travels with My Aunt” plays on screen like a subdued version of “Auntie Mame.” Unlike the rowdy broadness of the Patrick Dennis play and the Rosalind Russell film, George Cukor’s adaptation of the Greene work tries to be high-toned and literary, while simultaneously striving to seem madcap and funny. Unfortunately, the film succeeds more in its pretentiousness than it does in its comedy.
Alec McCowen is fine as Henry Pulling, the bank clerk who fusses with dahlias in his spare time and fumes prissily when cannabis is mixed with the ashes of his mother. Henry is a prime candidate for an Auntie Mame, although he’s a bit beyond his formative years. Henry’s out-of-character dalliance aboard the Orient Express with Cindy Williams, as a young drifter on her way to Katmandu, should have been cut. The tryst adds nothing to the plot and only confuses perceptions about Henry. Maggie Smith, at times stunningly garbed in luscious gowns by Anthony Powell, plays Aunt Augusta for all she’s worth, and Maggie is certainly worth a great deal. Although the actress is clearly too old to play the younger Augusta and too young, even with the age makeup, to play the elder woman, Smith is always fascinating to watch. Despite her mannerisms, which at times overwhelm the characterization, Smith is generally convincing and should have taken a shot at playing Mame Dennis in either the comedy or the musical version of “Auntie Mame.”
Although “Travels with My Aunt” was beautifully filmed by Douglas Slocombe against scenic splendor that stretches from Istanbul to Venice to Spain, the pace is often sluggish, and the plot preposterous. The proceedings are propelled by Augusta’s need to raise the ransom money to rescue a former lover, whose minor appendages are being sent to her one by one as a warning. However, coincidences abound, plot holes deepen, and threads are left hanging all over. Without McCowen and Smith, the film would be little more than a stylish, if soporific, travelogue.