Merchant-Ivory's Towering Feats

Although some highbrow critics have scoffed at them over the years as aesthetic wanna-bes, riding the coattails of artists like Henry James and E.M. Forster to the illusion of stature, the producer-director team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory has had a long a career in the arthouses. In the movie exhibition business, "Merchant-Ivory" has virtually become a term for any handsomely produced, low-key period drama--especially one set in Victorian or Edwardian England, or based on a respected novel--whether or not those two actually had a hand in it.

In plenty of cases, Mr. M and Mr. I did have a hand in it. Starting in the early '60s, after a decade or so making short documentaries for television, the Bombay-born Merchant and the California-born Ivory, often abetted by screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, have made around 20 features on a wide variety of subjects. Their better-known works are being shown in the retrospective Views of Merchant-Ivory: 3 Continents, 14 Films, running from Friday, August 21, to Thursday, September 3, at Harkins Camelview 5.

Here are some of the selections from the retrospective:

Shakespeare Wallah: (1965) The great Sashi Kapoor, as an Indian playboy, strikes up a romance with Felicity Kendal, an actress in a bush-league touring Shakespearian company. This intriguing, erotically tinged drama was one of Merchant-Ivory's earliest international successes.

Roseland: (1977) One of the team's relatively few experiments with original material--a script by Jhabvala--this one's a charming triptych of stories set in the famed New York City dance palace. Theresa Wright and Lou Jacoby star in part one; Geraldine Chaplin, Joan Copeland and Christopher Walken in part two; and, maybe most memorably, Lilia Skala in part three.

The Bostonians: (1984) This adaptation, by Jhabvala, of the Henry James novel about a young woman torn between her suitor, a sexist Southern gentleman, and her mentor, a passionate feminist, features striking performances by the leads--Madeleine Potter, Christopher Reeve and Vanessa Redgrave, respectively.

Maurice: (1987) E.M. Forster's novel about homosexuality might have been scandalous when it was written in 1913, or even when it was finally, posthumously, published in 1971, but it didn't make for a gripping film. James Wilby plays the title role, a middle-class man who can't get over his attraction to an aristocrat (Hugh Grant) until he has an affair with his gameskeeper (Rupert Graves). This takes a long time.

Mr. and Mrs. Bridge: (1990) This adaptation of Evan Connell's brilliant matched set of novels Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge, about a prosperous but emotionally distant Kansas City married couple and their children, wrongheadedly conflates the two books, destroying the psychological contrast between the characters. There are one or two strong scenes, and the evocation of mid-century, Midwestern America is terrific, but in the title roles, amazingly, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward barely come across at all.

Howards End: (1992) This smashingly well-turned bit of Oscar bait about the stubbornly held belief of the English upper class that they can do no wrong, adapted from the Forster novel by Jhabvala, draws its power from the wonderful performances of Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter, and especially Emma Thompson. With the exception of the charming Forster comedy A Room With a View--which, for some reason, is not included in this festival--this is the most popular of the Merchant-Ivory films, and maybe the best.

In Custody: (1993) Ismail Merchant's only foray into feature directing was this wistful drama about the relationship between an Urdu scholar (Om Puri) and a famous Urdu poet (Sashi Kapoor), and in terms of cinematic flair, Merchant made even Ivory look like Spike Lee by comparison. When I saw this film five years ago, I thought it might be the most boring movie I'd ever seen. I certainly can't recommend it, but I must admit that bits of Kapoor's and Puri's witty, poignant performances have stuck in my head ever since.

Jefferson in Paris: (1995) Jhabvala's muddled script and the miserably miscast Nick Nolte fumble this great subject. Thandie Newton is rather sultry as his slave/lover, however.

Also on the schedule are the lads' adaptation of Tama Janowitz's Slaves of New York; of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day; of James' The Europeans; of Jean Rhys' Quartet; and of Jhabvala's own novels The Householder and Heat and Dust.

--M. V. Moorhead

"Views of Merchant-Ivory: 3 Continents, 14 Films" runs Friday, August 21, through Thursday, September 3, at Harkins Camelview 5. For details, see Repertory Film in the Film Capsules section. 222-4275.