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The Boston Phoenix Mr. and Mr. Bridge

Merchant Ivory: 35 years of trying to connect.

By Jeffrey Gantz

APRIL 13, 1998:  E.M. Forster's description of the Alexandrian poet C.P. Cavafy as "standing . . . at a slight angle to the universe" has special relevance for the team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. For the past 35 years, Merchant Ivory have been making movies about the slight angle at which we all stand toward one another -- and about that other famous Forster pronouncement, the epigraph to Howards End, "Only connect . . . " This week the Coolidge Corner is honoring their achievement with a retrospective of 14 films (A Room with a View is conspicuous by its absence).

Producer Ismail Merchant is a Muslim who was born in Bombay and whose family chose, after the partition, to remain in Hindu India rather than move to Muslim Pakistan. Director James Ivory was born in Berkeley but linked up with Merchant after making a documentary about Indian miniature painting. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, their frequent screenwriter, was born in Cologne of Jewish parents but married Cyrus Jhabvala and moved to India, where she lived for 24 years (she's now in New York) and reared three daughters. The trio express the difficulty of connecting through a number of metaphors: past/present, Hindu/Muslim, England/India (or Italy), America/Europe, homosexual/heterosexual, man/woman. When the angle at which they stand is too pronounced, they fall into satire; when it's too small, they become sentimental. When it's just right, they make masterpieces. Here's a look at the Coolidge line-up:

A passage to India

Shakespeare Wallah (1965) and Heat and Dust (1983) are mirror images: in both films an English woman and an Indian man find romance but can't sustain it. India-born Lizzie Buckingham (Felicity Kendal) is a young actress in her parents' theater troupe, which travels through post-independence India presenting Shakespeare's plays. The rich young Indian playboy (Shashi Kapoor) she falls for admires her and her acting. But Sanju is Indian and Lizzie is not; her parents don't approve (they'd prefer an English husband); and Sanju can't accept the idea that Lizzie has admirers and lives in the public eye. In the end the angle persists. Lizzie takes the boat "home," stranded between England and India, between herself and Sanju.

Heat and Dust moves back and forth between two women, two time frames: 1923, when Olivia Rivers (Greta Scacchi), the wife of a junior officer (Christopher Cazenove), takes up with the local Nawab (Shashi Kapoor); and the 1970s, when her grandniece Anne (Julie Christie) visits India to do research on Olivia and begins an affair with a pleasant young man (Zakir Hussain). Neither relationship has much flesh and blood -- if in Shakespeare Wallah the gulf between England and India is a metaphor for the lovers' plight, here it's the other way around. Both women become pregnant. Olivia has an abortion and retreats to the solitude of the mountains; her India is a sensibility, a landscape. Anne also goes to the mountains; she's going to have her child, her own human piece of India. But only a piece. The men -- imperfect, expendable -- are left behind.

In In Custody (1993), we're standing at that slight angle to Urdu, the beautiful, ancient, endangered language of northern India and Pakistan (Merchant spoke it as a child). A poorly paid college professor (Om Puri) attempts to record for posterity the work of India's great Urdu poet (Shashi Kapoor), but the poet and his hangers-on are more interested in eating and drinking, and among the professor's colleagues there's a general lack of concern. Typically, Merchant Ivory find more beauty in language than in people, but this Hindi-language film is a hard nut for English-speaking audiences: what little Urdu poetry we hear doesn't come through well in translation. (At the Coolidge, In Custody is paired with the 1963 film The Householder, in which Shashi Kapoor is a young language teacher trying to connect with his wife in an arranged marriage.)

Hands across the sea

The Europeans (1979) adapts Henry James's novella about a prim Unitarian New England family who are visited by European cousins. Two couples find happiness: American Gertrude Wentworth (Lisa Eichhorn) with her European painter cousin Felix (Tim Woodward), and stuffy clergyman Mr. Brand with Gertrude's sister Charlotte. But Robert Acton (Robin Ellis), a neighbor and friend to the Wentworths, can't bring himself to propose to Felix's sister, Eugenia Duchess of Münster (Lee Remick) -- and he gets no help from his sister Lizzie (Kristin Griffith), who wants him for herself (incest as a metaphor for not connecting). His America is closed off from her Europe; she's too subtle, too sophisticated. It's that angle again.

Jefferson in Paris (1995) tells the same story, but without The Europeans' delicate balance (and without its superb performances) between irony and sympathy. Like Robert Acton, our widowed ambassador to France in the 1780s (Nick Nolte) is enamored of a fascinating European lady (Greta Scacchi) but can't pop the question. He's more comfortable with his child-mistress -- 15-year-old slave Sally Hemings (Thandie Newton) -- and with his daughter Patsy (Gwyneth Paltrow), who, sex apart, acts as his surrogate wife (incest as metaphor again). The movie -- a Touchstone Pictures release -- gets swamped by the filmmakers' attempt to contrast the ideals of the American and French Revolutions with Jefferson's own Virginia notions of whites and blacks and slavery; it's as if Merchant and Ivory were reluctant to connect with their own characters.

New York New York

There's no reluctance about Slaves of New York (1989), which Merchant Ivory adapted from the Tama Janowitz stories. The focus in this East Village saga is Eleanor (Bernadette Peters) and how she ditches her selfish-but-successful artist boyfriend, Stash (Adam Coleman Howard). Peters is ditzy but sweet; everyone else is just ditzy. Eventually Eleanor makes a success of her hat creations, moves into her own apartment, and meets a great guy who sells racehorse semen and takes her on a motorbike ride across a Manhattan bridge (did someone say metaphor?). It's a glorified TV-movie.

You could say that too about Merchant Ivory's other New York movie, Roseland (1977), a triptych about the denizens of the famed dance palace as they foot the thin line between reality and romance. But at least the "Hustle" episode, about a gigolo with three women on his hands, offers a brutal honesty that stops short of satire: Russell (Christopher Walken) is a weakling who loves the soft life and can't bear to hurt the woman who keeps him (Joan Copeland), so he sacrifices the one who wants him to be her dance partner again (Helen Gallagher) and the who one wants him to live with her (Geraldine Chaplin). The last word goes to Rosa (Lilia Skala) in the "Peabody" episode, after her partner dies: "If you got a partner, okay, fine. But if you don't, then you do it by yourself."

Three's a crowd

Merchant Ivory find themselves standing at too great an angle in Quartet (1981), which despite the name is really about a ménage à trois: Brits-in-Paris couple H.J. and Lisa Heidler (Alan Bates and Maggie Smith) and waif Marya Zelli (Isabelle Adjani), whose husband's in jail. Adapted from the Jean Rhys novel (a thinly disguised story about Ford Madox Ford), this film lapses into easy unpleasantness, with both H.J. and Lisa manipulating Marya to their sexual and/or emotional (lesbianism barely touched on) advantage. The ménage à trois of The Bostonians (1984), from the Henry James novel, is a more complicated affair, with cousins Basil Ransom (Christopher Reeve) and Olive Chancellor (Vanessa Redgrave) equally sympathetic as they compete for the attentions of the young, intelligent, and beautiful Verena Tarrant (Madeleine Potter). Verena is Olive's protégée, and Basil's opponent, in the women's movement; but the real battle is between Verena's attachment to Olive as surrogate mother and lesbian lover (implicit but unmistakable) and her sexual attraction to Basil. The mystery of heterosexual passion wins out, but Olive has the film's defining moment when she runs along a Cape Cod beach looking out to sea for Verena but finding only the setting sun.

No convergence of the twain

Even Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward can't keep Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990), which Merchant Ivory adapted from the Evan Connell novels about a Kansas City couple in the '30s, from teetering on the edge of parody. There's no bridge between Walter and India (whom he treats as a child): when she suggests she'd like to try analysis, Walter responds, "How about a new car?" Their children elude their understanding; so do their neighbors -- India is clueless when her best friend (Blythe Danner) commits suicide. Walter has one transcendent moment when they're in Paris: he gets out of bed (India was too tired to make love), dresses, walks down to the Seine, looks at a bridge, looks at the water, contemplates, for the only time in the film, what he might have been.

The Remains of the Day (1993) is full of such transcendent moments -- and two transcendent performances. The story, adapted from the novel by Kazuro Ishiguro, is about the considerable angle that develops between the hyper-correct head butler (Anthony Hopkins) and the more yielding housekeeper (Emma Thompson) in the employ of the German-appeasing Lord Darlington on the eve of World War II: she tries valiantly, he's unable to express any feeling. Unlike Walter Bridge, however, Mr. Stevens seems always on the edge: even at the end, when Miss Kenton clings to his hand as they part, it clearly isn't too late, she'd marry him if he asked. The final shot pans away from Darlington Hall to show the green and pleasant England that Stevens has hidden from, just as he's hidden from the world (he mirrors his employer's naïveté about the Nazis), and from love.

Finding the right view

It's no coincidence that three of Merchant Ivory's best films are E.M. Forster adaptations: his indirect style is just right for them. The slight angle in Maurice (1987) is homosexuality: Clive (Hugh Grant) denies his relationship with Maurice (James Wilby) for fear of what society will do to him, but he's never as close to the woman he marries. Maurice eventually finds happiness with gamekeeper Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves), Forster closing the angle a little too easily in his happiness at coming out (though no more so than he did between George Emerson and Lucy Honeychurch in A Room with a View).

Forster's epitome, and Merchant Ivory's, is Howards End (1992). The title is no accident: Forster's characters (and most of Merchant Ivory's) find it easier to connect with landscape than with one another. The novel limns a series of delicate, angled relationships: Henry and Ruth Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins and Vanessa Redgrave), Henry and Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson), Helen Schlegel and Leonard Bast (Helena Bonham Carter and Samuel West), Ruth and Margaret, Margaret and Helen, Charles Wilcox (James Wilby) and Leonard (the most obtuse angle: Charles causes Leonard's death in a fit of anger that verges on repressed homosexuality). Margaret and Henry are Forster's masterpiece, an angle barely closed, a connection barely made, that's a poetic mystery; Hopkins and Thompson turn it into living geometry. Meanwhile Helen has her child without Leonard, and without missing him (echoes of Heat and Dust); and Howards End, the future of England (if there's to be any future), passes from the Wilcoxes to the Schlegels: the meek shall inherit. Not a conventional solution, but the novel's tragedy/triumph, and the film's, is that it's hard to envision any other.

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