Adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from the novel by Henry James, Merchant/Ivory's The Bostonians is set among the Back Bay uppercrust of the 19th century. Basil Ransom (Christopher Reeve), bored by his opulent lifestyle and his proper friends, is fascinated by his cousin, outspoken suffragette Olive Chancellor (Vanessa Redgrave).
Basil and Olive's mutual friend is likeable, gregarious Verena Tannant (Madeleine Potter).
Soon a triangle develops, albeit an unorthodox one: Basil and Olive both find themselves pursuing Verena, Basil because he is in love with her, and Olive because she wants to exploit Verena's social connections and gift for public speaking to promote her own political ideology.
Lurking in the background is Verena's true love, poor-but-honest attorney Henry Burrage (John Van Ness).