‘Merchant Ivory’ Review: Illuminating Doc Examines the Private and Professional Sides of an Enduring Film Partnership

‘Merchant Ivory’ Review: Illuminating Doc Examines the Private and Professional Sides of an Enduring Film Partnership

There’s often been unfair snobbery about the films of Merchant Ivory, the production banner founded in 1961 by producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory, which gives Stephen Soucy’s entertaining documentary study its title. The British costume drama was widely considered a wheezing genre — fusty, middlebrow and too calcified in its literary sources to acquire much cinematic vitality — when A Room with a View came along in 1986 and became a global art-house crossover hit. At their best, notably in Howards End and Remains of the Day, Merchant Ivory’s films stand the test of time as influential works that removed the starch from the stodgy period piece.

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Contemporaries reductively dismissed their output as “Laura Ashley filmmaking,” referencing the design firm known for its pretty Romantic Victorian inspirations. But Merchant Ivory did more than anyone from the mid-1980s to the early ‘90s to popularize and legitimize the thematically and emotionally rich costume drama. Would the appetite for Gosford Park, the flurry of Jane Austen adaptations or even Downton Abbey a couple of decades later have been quite the same without them?

Merchant Ivory

The Bottom Line

A rich and rewarding overview.

Venue: DOC NYC (Portraits)
With: James Ivory, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Vanessa Redgrave, Hugh Grant, James Wilby, Rupert Graves, Simon Callow, Sam Waterston, Natasha McElhone, Greta Scacchi, Nickolas Grace, Felicity Kendal, Samuel West, James Fox
Director: Stephen Soucy
Screenwriters: Jon Hart, Stephen Soucy

1 hour 52 minutes

As observers point out here, the trademarks of the production company — which folded in 2007, two years after Merchant’s death — were incisive casting, elegant compositions, exquisite scores, lush locations with an eye for the physical beauty in both nature and architecture, complex characters and a worldly sensibility that informed their smart scripts. Respect for the writer, whether the original novelist or the screenwriter, was a constant.

“These are two of the most laid-back, pleasant, civilized, literate filmmakers I’ve ever met,” says Roger Ebert in an archival clip.

Where Soucy’s doc transcends hagiography to take in the more renegade side of the Merchant Ivory operation is in the many forthright, funny anecdotes about how those films came together. Sam Waterston describes the principals as “pirates… charting their own course.” Others are blunter in their assessments, painting a picture of Merchant as a charming con man, a suggestion Ivory laughs off but doesn’t dispute.

Merchant was known for plowing ahead with production without a complete budget in place, cajoling money out of investors along the way and deferring payments for as long as possible, a practice that often left cast and crew disgruntled. Fending off creditors was a full-time job on the Merchant Ivory phone lines. Regular collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala jokes affectionately in an archival interview that she always expected to be visiting Ismail in prison one day.

On the last of his four collaborations with the company, Anthony Hopkins (represented in pre-existing interviews) sued for unpaid wages. Costumer Jenny Beavan, who won her first Academy Award for A Room with a View, concedes that the intervening years tend to smooth away the rough edges of experiences in which time and money were invariably “tricky.” She’s one of several lively interviewees to do an affectionate impersonation of Ismail: “Jenny, Jenny, I got you your Oscar. Why do I now need to pay you?”

Beavan and her co-designer John Bright also encapsulate the shoestring nature of most Merchant Ivory projects by revealing that a costume team comprised of just three people dressed the 150 actors in a Florentine crowd scene in A Room with a View, unlike the dozens that would be responsible for a scene of similar scope on most productions.

Much is made also of Merchant’s canny ability to soothe frayed tempers. Greta Scacchi recalls the caterers on the Indian location shoot of Heat and Dust threatening not to come to the set before bills were settled. She then describes a cast-and-crew excursion organized by Merchant to a magnificent palace seldom open to the public, where the producer had organized a sumptuous picnic spread.

The prevailing view of Merchant appears to be that while his methods were unorthodox, he was a rascal whose appeasement maneuvers were impossible to resist. “He could charm the birds out of the trees,” notes Hopkins.

The doc breaks down the yin-yang symbiosis of the two company founders. Ivory on film sets is known to be calm and composed, with a meticulous attention to detail and a tendency to trust his actors, keeping directorial guidance to a minimum. (Emma Thompson says she always found the lack of cosseting on his shoots refreshing, laughing as she remembers him leaning into a carriage after a scene to say, “That was boring.”) Merchant, by contrast, was a dynamic force in constant motion, frequently a screamer, but always adept at swiftly finding solutions for every problem that arose.

Soucy examines the romantic union of Merchant and Ivory and the anomaly of a gay couple forming one of the longest and most successful partnerships in film industry history. They lived together for more than 40 years, even if, as Ivory acknowledges, for much of that time and in many circles, “It was understood, but never talked about.”

Paradoxically, it was the more reserved Ivory who championed their 1987 screen adaptation of E.M. Forster’s posthumously published gay novel, Maurice, overcoming Merchant’s reluctance at a time when the AIDS crisis and Margaret Thatcher’s braying about traditional moral values were fueling homophobia.

Stars James Wilby, Hugh Grant and Rupert Graves, all early in their careers at that time, provide enlightening commentary on a film that helped move the needle in queer screen representation. Especially insightful input comes from screenwriter Kit Hesketh-Harvey, who died earlier this year and to whom Soucy’s doc is dedicated.

Given Ivory’s championing of Maurice, it seems fitting that his adapted screenplay for the instant queer classic Call Me by Your Name made him at 89 the oldest person to win an Oscar (tied with Ann Roth).

In addition to dedicated chapters tracing the individual backgrounds of Merchant and Ivory, the two other key members of the “family,” Jhabvala and Richard Robbins, receive a good share of attention. The private lives of the foursome were as intertwined as their professional work, and all of them in one way or another brought an outsider perspective to their subjects.

Novelist Jhabvala wrote 23 Merchant Ivory scripts, including their first narrative feature, The Householder, based on her book. It’s an interesting tidbit that Merchant enlisted Satyajit Ray to look at the rough cut and then step in as uncredited editor, fixing the clunky, overlong draft by repositioning the entire plot as a flashback.

Composer Robbins wrote the scores for 21 Merchant Ivory films and was romantically involved with Ismail for a time. His artful blend of period music with the minimalist inspiration of composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich helped establish the tension between calm façade and internal turmoil in films like Howards End and Remains of the Day, in particular.

Whether pertaining to class, sexuality or emotional candor, Soucy sees that struggle between the veneer of polite society and personal conflict as a thematic link between the films of Ivory, Merchant and Jhabvala — not to mention the novels of Forster and Henry James that were their frequent subjects — and their own at times convoluted relationships.

In terms of assembly, the densely packed, briskly paced Merchant Ivory is a conventional quilt of talking heads and extensive clips, and Soucy’s narration sounds a bit flat. But what engaging interviews and gorgeous film excerpts they are. Anyone with a fondness for these movies and for tales of what might be described as a gentlemen guerrilla filmmaking operation will find immense pleasure here. Soucy and editor/co-writer Jon Hart more or less work through the material chronologically, but also leave room for detours in thematic chapters.

The range of interviewees is impressive, with delightful contributions especially from Thompson and Grant, in fine droll form. The latter jokes about the sexual current energizing the shoots of his work with the company: “In those days, film sets crackled with subliminal lust.” Thompson is observant in pinpointing what made certain actors uniquely right for their roles — in many cases before they achieved fame — not to mention generous in her praise for colleagues’ performances.

Helena Bonham Carter brings a wealth of professional experience and personal association to her witty comments, charting the evolving perceptions of her work, from “little girl” ingénue to accomplished dramatic actress. Her blue-blood family history played a part in development of two Merchant Ivory films — her aunt’s collection of Marie Antoinette ephemera became a research tool on Jefferson in Paris, while her liberal-radical baroness grandmother, whom she later discovered was a personal friend of Forster’s, partly inspired her characterization as Helen Schlegel in Howards End.

Vanessa Redgrave is amusingly prickly, acknowledging tensions on the shoot of The Bostonians but reaffirming her friendship with Ivory and Merchant and her gratitude for their support in a lawsuit that claimed she lost work due to her outspoken political sympathies. And of course there’s Ivory’s own warm reflections, for instance his tender thoughts on the way a touching scene in Mr. & Mrs. Bridge mirrored his relationship with his father.

While the doc’s most in-depth focus is on four key films — A Room with a View, Maurice, Howards End and Remains of the Day — Soucy spends time also on important early work like Shakespeare Wallah and on critical disappointments, many of them from later years when the company secured studio backing and larger budgets.

Merchant’s unexpected death is given affecting coverage, both in the debilitating loss it represented for Ivory and the galvanizing force abruptly missing from his professional endeavors. But it’s heartening to see the now 95-year-old director, the last survivor of the Merchant Ivory quartet, at his Hudson Valley home in cheerful humor, still busy writing new projects.