Halls of Ivory

  Merchant Ivory

When exactly did the tag Merchant Ivory film become such an automatic term of abuse among some moviegoers and critics? The term rolls so easily off the tongue these days that I sometimes wonder whether everyone who utters it realises that it names two individuals with long and varied careers: producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory.


These days, the words Merchant Ivory film serve as shorthand for a particular kind of movie: a stately costume drama, usually adapted from a literary classic (by the likes of Henry James or E.M. Forster), sometimes set against the backdrop of momentous historical events, sometimes depicting the life of a famous artist, writer or statesman: A Room with a View (1986), Maurice (1987), Howards End (1992), Surviving Picasso (1996) …


For some, these titles evoke horror. The films are decried as slow, boring, uncinematic, obsequious to High Art literary values, out of touch with contemporary sensibilities. Killing words like taxidermy are regularly used in, for instance, the Time Out Film Guide from Britain .


The first literal Merchant Ivory film was The Householder (1963). This began a long period in which the team (with regular screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) was noted for biting social satire (Savages, 1972), absorbing chamber drama (Autobiography of a Princess, 1975), several smart films about the India-Britain relationship (including Bombay Talkie, 1970) and a wry portrait of Hollywood decadence (The Wild Party, 1975).


But, in a stroke of fortune that brought both fame and ingloriousness, Heat and Dust (1983) was to become the first mythic Merchant Ivory film. And from then on it has been hard for some viewers to separate the truly turgid works signed by the team (such as Jefferson in Paris, 1995) from the underrated gems like Mr and Mrs Bridge (1990) and A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries (1998). And it is even hard to appreciate what the regulation Merchant Ivory pieces – like The Remains of the Day (1993) and The Golden Bowl (2001) – often do very well, such as depict frictions of class and national culture, or present understated, simmering dramas of sexual repression.


The worst general effect of the demonisation of Merchant Ivory is that the very terms costume drama and even period film have become veritable curses upon any director drawn to a subject that is set in the past, and especially one that depends on an aristocratic milieu. It is as if the mere presence of fussy costumes and fine antique furniture condemns a film from the outset to stuffiness, inertia and anachronism.


There are many contemporary talents – from Roman Polanski (Tess, 1980) to Olivier Assayas (Sentimental Destinies, 2000) via Martin Scorsese (The Age of Innocence, 1993) – who have had to risk being tainted by Merchant Ivoryness in order to adapt classic novels that were dear to them. Others, such as Michael Winterbottom in his Thomas Hardy adaptations Jude (1996) and The Claim (2000), avoid the curse by strenuously making the past seem absolutely up-to-the-minute in look, mood and psychology. (Although note that Hossein Amini, the screenwriter of Jude and the equally hip adaptation of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove, 1997, defends Merchant Ivory films.)


But isn’t the prevailing anti-period-film sentiment obscuring some riches from cinema’s own past? Anyone who starts sounding off about the boring rich and their finery should be marched directly to a screening of Luchino Visconti’s masterpiece The Leopard (1963): few films are as intelligent and moving in their presentation of individuals coping, in their starkly varied ways, with tumultuous changes in the world around them.


MORE Merchant Ivory: Cotton Mary, Le Divorce, Lumière and Company, Feast of July


© Adrian Martin December 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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