Cotton Mary

(Ismail Merchant, France/UK/USA, 1999)


For almost two decades, Merchant Ivory film has been a term of unmitigated abuse among cinephiles. It has become – somewhat unfairly – a shorthand for empty, pretty, middle class, literature-obsessed cinema. For his part, James Ivory has done his best to confound this easy slagging-off by making A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries (1998), his finest film.

Ismail Merchant, however, seems determined to once again give the partnership a bad name. Cotton Mary is his second attempt at direction, and it is a weak, meandering, bloodless piece. The script by Alexandra Viets sketches an intriguing situation: the subtle power games played by an Anglo-Indian nurse, Mary (Madhur Jaffrey), in relation to the easily manipulable Lily (Greta Scacchi) and her new-born child.

Set in the 1950s, Merchant sets out to explore the pains and paradoxes of colonial interdependence. Mary's act of taking the child to Blossom (Neena Gupta) for breast-feeding gives her power and feeds her fantasy that she is privileged. At the same time, Mary is at points keenly aware of her lower status among genteel, white, British folk.

Unfortunately, rather than sharpening these issues, Merchant falls into the trap of merely portraying Mary as rather batty – and never telling the story from her position. The story is further undermined by a frankly unbelievable premise (Lily's passivity and complicity) and an irrelevant, inconclusive, supposedly steamy sub-plot involving Lily's husband, John (James Wilby), and Mary's sister, Rosie (Sakina Jaffrey).

If Merchant is aware of the proximity of this material to the popular intimacy thrillers of Hollywood (like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, 1992), he is clearly unwilling to emulate the trashy energy and suggestiveness of such films. Instead, he makes a dull movie without dramatic tension or a strongly identifiable viewpoint.

For once, the standard-issue 'beautiful photography' will not be nearly enough to satisfy even the least demanding arthouse filmgoer.

MORE Merchant Ivory: Le Divorce, The Golden Bowl, Jefferson in Paris, The Remains of the Day, Feast of July

© Adrian Martin July 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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