Critics, mostly American ones, use the phrase “there’s a ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ quality about it” as a mild put-down. This reviewers’ cliche has come to mean that the movie is noble, intelligent, discerning . . . and boring.
It’s the type of line that comes up every now and then with the films of the team of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant.
The creators of such releases as “Howards End” and “The Remains of the Day,” to name a couple, are usually lauded for their subtle, literate work but gently scolded for being so obstinately stuffy and high-brow.
In a Hollywood age of blinding special effects and split-second concentration lapses, that sort of criticism is to be expected. But I find it hard to agree with.
Ivory (the director) and Merchant (the producer) do find pleasure in subtlety and a slow pace–sometimes distractingly so; Anthony Hopkins’ character in “The Remains of the Day” is so internalized, he almost drives us nuts with restraint–but they understand the value of ambiguity and naturalism.
That’s what many of the greatest books are all about, a fact to be appreciated when considering that the duo has made a career of interpreting some of the best novels around. They’ve had the nerve to tackle the complex worlds of Henry James, Jean Rhys and E.M. Forster, their personal favorite.
There have been failures (“The Bostonians” from 1984 was convoluted and miscast; “The Wild Party” from 1975 was a loud experiment gone awry) but more successes. Some aren’t on DVD (the early “Bombay Talkie,” released in 1970, and “Savages” from 1972 among them), but here’s a partial chronological list of Ivory-Merchant high points available for home viewing on DVD or streaming video:
“Shakespeare Wallah” was the pair’s first major venture. The 1965 film follows a struggling troupe of actors trying to get by on memories of distant glory and the desperate knowledge that there is little else they can do but perform.
Ivory, Merchant and their long-time screenwriter, novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, give the movie a quiet quirkiness that trades on the filmmakers’ trademark dedication to exploring the characters.
In 1972 came “Roseland,” one of the team’s first tries at reaching a wide U.S. audience. The picture is divided into three vignettes centered on lonely folks who find joy on the dance floor of New York’s famous Roseland Ballroom.
The film is uneven, with an annoyingly sentimental streak, but a few of the roles are intimately rendered by a cast that includes Christopher Walken, Geraldine Chaplin and Teresa Wright.
“The Europeans,” which came out in 1979, is a more accomplished picture. This adaptation of Henry James’ novel shows how well Ivory-Merchant can define the essence of a period, this time late 19th-Century New England.
Lee Remick stars in the detailed, richly photographed story of a pair of foreign cousins who upset the stilted calm of a conservative American family they’ve come to visit.
Ivory, Merchant and Jhabvala decided to adapt Jean Rhys’ “Quartet” in 1981. The movie, featuring Alan Bates, Maggie Smith and Isabelle Adjani, has a muted decadence about it. “Quartet” is also one of the filmmakers’ more sensual pictures; Bates spends much of his time seducing Adjani while his wife, played by Smith, lurks in the background.
A major breakthrough came in 1986 with “A Room With a View,” a much-praised interpretation of E.M. Forster’s novel. This Oscar-winner (for screenplay, art direction and costume design) is a faithful adaptation of Forster’s soft comedy of English manners and mores. Helena Bonham Carter is the young beauty who travels to Florence, finding romance, passion and self-awareness on the journey.
Merchant and Ivory turned again to Forster and self-discovery in 1987 as they adapted the novelist’s “Maurice” for the screen. The movie closely follows Forster’s account of a homosexual trying to understand his identity during repressive times.
In the film, set in 1914, Maurice (James Wilby) decides to embrace his orientation despite the dangers; back then, it was illegal to be gay in England, and the threat of a long prison sentence usually guaranteed a life deep in the closet.
Perhaps Ivory-Merchant’s most calculated attempt to find an American audience came in 1990 with “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.” The movie, about an unemotional marriage between an aging Midwestern couple, starred big-timers Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
“Mr. and Mrs. Bridge” can be a stodgy, even colorless film, but it does have some interest.
Woodward is fine as the frustrated wife, and Newman has his moments. Besides, it marked the first time in more than 15 years that this real-life married couple had made a movie together.
Director’s cue: Movie lovers, you may also want to take a look at Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Casablanca. For more film articles, please visit Nick Smithville.