The Merchant-Ivory Cinema

As I read about the Bharadwaj-Bond nexus, my mind wanders down the another pair of film makers who had an uncanny ability to bring literature to the silver screen almost impeccably.

From ‘Shakespeare Wallah’ in 1965 to ‘The Golden Bowl’ in 2000, the team of Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala produced films steeped in the greatness of Victorian and modern literary traditions, often adapted from books by authors like E. M. Forster and Henry James.

‘A Room With A View’ was their first breakthrough success, though in my opinion the team hit its peak in 1992 and 1993 with the wonderful ‘Howards End’ followed by the soaring, sublime ‘Remains of the Day’, featuring Anthony Hopkins as a repressed butler in a grand mansion. The Merchant-Ivory brand became so closely identified with a certain type of lit-film adaptation that they are often believed to have created films they had nothing to do with, like ‘A Passage to India’, which was directed by David Lean. The company has done so well at this, that even the expression “Merchant-Ivory film” has made its way into common parlance, to denote a particular genre of film rather than the actual production company. A typical “Merchant-Ivory film” would be a period piece set in the early 20th century, usually in Edwardian England, featuring lavish sets and top British actors portraying genteel characters who suffer from disillusionment and tragic entanglements.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about James Ivory’s direction is how unremarkable it is. They never relied on complicated camera movement or visual tricks. Their shots are set up and held steady, resolved to see the scene through with the basics of life—not unlike their characters.

Rummaging through the rushes of Never Let Me Go, I can’t help but think of James-Ivory and how they would have done this, a languid literary contemplation on the vagaries of life, love, bee stings and the artistic soul. Just as easy to sense is the missing touch of Ismail Merchant, who died in 2005.


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