Movies inspire a lot of passion, but the back catalogue of film history can be daunting. For every fan who’s obsessed with an actor, director or sub-genre, there’s another struggling to know where to start. Sometimes all it takes is the right recommendation to set you on your path from newbie to know-it-all…
Your next obsession: the exquisite period dramas of Merchant Ivory
Although often very popular with audiences, Merchant Ivory films have never been fashionable. They have an unjust reputation for producing glossy but stiff costume dramas, despite the subtle hints of darker themes that lie below the surface, particularly when they focus on class.
James Ivory filming A Room with a View (1985) with Helena Bonham Carter and Judi Dench
The collaborative team of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory – plus, often, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a key contributor to most of their finest films – are best remembered for a handful of period pieces from the 1980s and early 90s, including literary adaptations of E.M. Forster (A Room with a View, Maurice, Howards End), Henry James (The Europeans, The Bostonians, The Golden Bowl) and Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day).
Superb though many of them are, in fact these films only scratch the surface of Merchant Ivory’s colossal filmography. The team has also made many films in and about India, including satires of patronising westerners seeking spiritual enlightenment (The Guru), dramas showing the tensions between British expats and Indian citizens (Shakespeare Wallah) and docudramas about Indian lives seldom seen on the big screen (The Courtesans of Bombay).
Even less widely known are a number of curios they made in the UK and US that, despite starry casts, are rarely rewatched today. The presence of Raquel Welch (The Wild Party), Christopher Walken (Roseland) and Anne Baxter (Jane Austen in Manhattan) haven’t saved these films from relative obscurity.
While Howards End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993) may be regarded as quintessentially British films, the back catalogue of Merchant Ivory is global in scope and subject – unsurprisingly, given that Ivory was born in the US, Merchant in India and Jhabvala in Germany.
The best place to start – A Room with a View
A Room with a View (1985)
A Room with a View was Merchant Ivory’s first big commercial hit and became a hugely influential film. Its perfect combination of wit, romance, heritage and beauty changed how British cinema and TV approached period drama. It’s a gorgeous love story set between Florence and rural Surrey, and it marked the film debut of Helena Bonham Carter as young, vibrant Lucy, who is alarmed by the passions awakened in her by the charismatic George (Julian Sands), while regretful of imminent marriage to the pompous Cecil (Daniel Day-Lewis on excellent form).
Maggie Smith gives one of her most memorable performances as the sharp, permanently disapproving Charlotte, a role that would see her play many similar roles in her career, culminating in her scene-stealing, pantomimey turns in Gosford Park (2001) and Downton Abbey (2010-15).
It’s a strange quirk of Thatcher-era British cinema that many of the biggest hits of the decade – Chariots of Fire (1981), Gandhi (1982) – were period pieces, not all of which have dated well. A Room with a View is the exception: it remains a joy to watch.
What to watch next
For a film collective with a reputation for safe, tasteful features, Merchant Ivory have never been afraid of bawdiness or subversion. Maurice (1987), a Forster adaptation about a gay man in Edwardian Britain, was made at a time when homophobia was at a high. This was the era of AIDS-crisis tabloid hysteria and a discriminatory Thatcher government, when LGBT people were used to seeing queer characters on film end up miserable, ill or dead. Radically, Maurice gave its homosexual protagonist that rarest of things – a happy ending in the arms of his lover.
Conversely, The Remains of the Day, their exquisite adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, is a passionate drama about a romance that never happens, with a heartbreaking performance from Anthony Hopkins as a repressed butler.
You’re missing out on the full Merchant Ivory experience if you don’t explore their movies in and about India. However, these little-seen films are at their best when the south Asian, rather than British, characters are given space to develop. The Householder (1963), their first film, is a simple story of a newlywed couple learning to love each other following an arranged marriage. In Shakespeare Wallah (1965), Madhur Jaffrey, despite being the chief antagonist, steals the film from the leads as a spoilt Bollywood star (she won the best actress award at Berlin for her performance).
Shakespeare Wallah (1965)
Best of all is the hour-long Autobiography of a Princess (1975), starring Jaffrey – as a likeable but utterly delusional Indian princess, now exiled in Kensington and oblivious to the corruption manifest in her family – and James Mason as a weary companion, gently expressing his unhappiness and disgust at his time in India. In one of Jhabvala’s most impressive screenplays, neither character says exactly what they mean.
The Henry James adaptations are the best start to any journey through Merchant Ivory’s American films. The Europeans (1979) may be too stagey for some, but The Bostonians (1984) is one of their most overlooked films, transforming James’s original into a wrenching melodrama, as a paranoid feminist and a charming chauvinist battle for the soul of a young woman. Vanessa Redgrave, an often great actor who sometimes veers into ham, gives Olive, a neurotic and controlling figure in the novel, considerable pathos. She was nominated for an Oscar, and should have won. Meanwhile, The Golden Bowl (2000) boasts a cruelly underrated performance from Uma Thurman as a woman trapped in an awkward marriage, yearning for the love of her former beau.
The Bostonians (1984)
Despite all these, it’s their 1992 film Howards End that remains Merchant Ivory’s greatest achievement. Here, all their skills blend to create a mature, very moving romantic melodrama, in which the class commentary, centring around the hypocrisy of wealthy capitalists, is delivered so subtly and builds so gradually that the dramatic ending still comes as a shock. Emma Thompson won an Academy Award for her perfectly judged performance as kindly Helen, and Jhabvala won her second best adapted screenplay Oscar.
Where not to start
Between a strong start in the 1960s and the marvellous period films of the mid-1980s, Merchant Ivory had a slightly choppy ride. Although some of their 70s films had interesting ideas – Bombay Talkie (1970) is a love story between two deeply unsympathetic characters, while Savages (1972) is a class satire in which partygoers leap from a primitive existence in the mud to luxuriating in a mansion before rushing back to the swamp – they were not always well-realised. The pacing and endings of some of these films are unsatisfactory, and, while completists may embrace these curios, novices should steer clear.