Thursday, March 21, 2024


Stephen Sourcy has directed the definitive documentary of the iconic and important film-making collective known as Merchant Ivory. It might be best known to audiences for Oscar-winning costume dramas like A ROOM WITH A VIEW and REMAINS OF THE DAY, but the body of work is so much more expansive, impressive and influential than that. Merchant Ivory began making contemporary films in post-independence India that captured something of the life of diverse creatives in that era.  Only later did they turn to adapting Henry James and EM Forster, earning their reputation for handsomely filmed costume drama. Even after that, they made films set in contemporary New York. And most recently, for a younger generation, James Ivory finally earned his Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for CALL ME BY YOUR NAME.

The collective met entirely by chance. James Ivory was a young Waspy American who longed to create theatre productions, and almost fell into film directing on the side. He met Ismael Merchant, a young muslim Indian in New York, and they became lovers and collaborators.  Ivory directed, Merchant produced. Ivory had a meticulous eye for detail and gave actors room to breathe. Merchant had a knack of charming and cajoling people for money to create movies that looked luxurious on a shoestring budget.

Over the years they added to their film-making family. First came Ruth Prawer Jhabwala, a German jew who had escaped to England, married a persian Indian and become a writer of great renown in her own right. She gave Merchant Ivory her ability to write screenplays of piercing insight and subtle sedition. The last of the quartet was the composer Richard Robbins, who at some point became Ismael's lover too - a relationship that James likens to a muslim man taking on a second wife. 

Of course, for decades the fact that this powerhouse director-producer couple were an actual couple was not discussed publicly. It was the screenwriting equivalent of "Don't ask, don't tell" to protect conservative families and presumably career prospects too. And yet, behind all of this, Ivory claims he never felt any shame at being gay, and on the back of the wild success of A ROOM WITH A VIEW, they tackled E.M. Forster's explicitly gay novel MAURICE. That was a desperately important film, made as was against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic and the fierce conservative backlash against homosexuals.  

The documentary benefits from an insightful use of archival material as well as a plethora of new interviews. Helena Bonham Carter and Emma Thompson are the most fascinating and insightful of the actors, and Anthony Hopkins is notably absent. But I really loved hearing from people who were long time collaborators behind the lens - make-up and costume designers and others who describe beautifully the charm and frustration of working for no money - and the learning experience from James Ivory's exquisite taste.

So the film is admiring, but not hagiography. The strange nature of the core relationship is explored as much as Ivory will allow. The weird overlap of personal and professional is interrogated, as is the strangulation of Ismael's desire to live with Richard Robbins.  You sense there is a steel under the refinement of James Ivory. 

But ultimately, this is a laudatory and glorious film that not only revisits the iconic fan favourites but hopefully will guide them toward the full back catalogue. It made me want to revisit JEFFERSON IN PARIS, which the critics panned, but looks sumptuous now - like a Kubrick period piece. Overall, it made me appreciate the real genius and danger of their superficially beautiful films. Like Agatha Christie, who is often portrayed as writing twee, safe, puzzle books, Merchant Ivory films are far more slippery, dangerous things. They deserve revisiting.

MERCHANT IVORY played BFI Flare 2024 and will get a US release at some point this year. It has a running time of 112 minutes.

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