“Travels With My Aunt” takes its title, much of its dialogue, many of its situations and almost all its characters from a fine Graham Greene novel that, in the long run, it does not so closely resemble. The characters include Henry Rulling, a retiring London bank manager; his exuberant Aunt Augusta, well into her ’70’s, with passions modified but unextinguished; Zachary Wordsworth, Augusta’s black and very loyal lover, and Tooley, an affectionate American hippie traveling east on the Orient Express.
East is where everyone else is traveling—to the aid of the kidnapped Mr. Visconti, the charming unspeakable love of Aunt Augusta’s youth. Of Visconti we see very little, except in Aunt Augusta’s memories and in the small parts of him (an amputated finger here, an ear there) that show up along the route.
In type, the film is a comedy adventure-mystery, and ostensibly its aim is to save Mr. Visconti, while there is still some of him left. But its real aim is the revitalization of Henry, sunk deep into his dahlias and conventional middle age. This is achieved, but not so simply as you might imagine. And the great charm of “Travels With My Aunt” is the surprising emotional complexity it manages in terms of its light tone and its nutty, endlessly involved plotting.
Maggie Smith, playing a woman twice her age, seems to have surrounded her character rather than to have inhabited it. She is wonderfully gotten up and made up—even to the most refined shade of carrot-red dye in her hair—and she is energetic enough for any five ordinary performers. But it is the energy of caricature rather than personality, and Aunt Augusta is sufficiently an original not to need any eccentricities added on.
But the film is full of privileged moments, lucid, controlled and graceful, and any of them might serve to epitomize the style and the meaning of the valuable cinema of George Cukor.