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Shakespeare Wallah Review


Good
The first sequence of Shakespeare Wallah shows British actors clowning around like idiots while knowing Indian servants wince, and it looks like the film will be a typically simple-minded parody of British "imperialism." This early Merchant-Ivory collaboration shares the same subject matter -- the end of the British Empire -- as many of their later films, but it develops into a more intimate and nuanced work than the team's subsequent high-profile period films, like The Remains of the Day.

Probably this is because the story, which concerns an unsuccessful troupe of English Shakespearean actors in post-colonial India, is semi-autobiographical. Several of the actors, most of whom are somehow related (Felicity Kendal is the daughter of Geoffrey Kendal and Laura Liddell in life as well as on screen), were actually members of an English-Indian theatrical troupe who toured India in the 1960s. The film is most interesting as a tour of India when it was still in some ways a British country.

Continue reading: Shakespeare Wallah Review

Savages Review


Good
Forget everything you know about Merchant-Ivory movies. Savages, their first American film, begins in the oddest way imaginable: Black and white footage shows us a group of primitive "mud people" participating in tribal rituals. A German voice-over presumably explains the action, documentary style. There are no subtitles. Suddenly, a croquet ball rolls into their midst. The mud people track where it came from and discover an abandoned British manor. They take up residence.

Overnight the film changes completely: Gone is the narrator and the documentary feel. Now the film is in color, and the mud people are no longer savages. They have miraculously evolved into proper ladies and gentlemen, complete with tuxedos, dinner parties, dancing, and plenty of gossip. The absurdity continues, just in a different way. Title cards appear willy-nilly, in various foreign languages. Parlor room conversations contain the kind of pseudo-intellectual nonsense you'd expect, only these statements are nonsense -- the characters saying them are all primitives!

Continue reading: Savages Review

Mr. & Mrs. Bridge Review


Weak
Merchant-Ivory, working stateside for once. Maybe not such a good idea, as this Paul Newman/Joanne Woodward vehicle is dry as dust, chronicling with detached boredom the ups and downs of the Bridge family, of which Newman is the head. Tiresome and uninspired, it ends as abruptly as it begins, with nary an audience member to care about any of it.

The Remains Of The Day Review


Excellent
What a heartbreaker. Looking back on The Remains of the Day after seven years, I find I have a new appreciation for the film. What I once felt was a hollow look at servants in pre-WWII rural England, oblivious to the world around them, devoid of any real emotion, I now see in a different light. A closer look shows all the deep and heartfelt emotion just under the surface of Anthony Hopkins, underrewarded in one of the finest roles of his career. James Fox also shines as a Nazi semi-sympathetic aristocrat who "just wants peace," and Emma Thompson dazzles as the only real backbone in the bunch. Also look for good yet smallish turns from Christopher Reeve, Ben Chaplin, and Hugh Grant.

The Courtesans Of Bombay Review


Good
Ismael Merchant's 1983 documentary takes a quick and almost casual look at one of Bombay's odd compounds: A residence/office/studio of sorts where women with entertainment industry aspirations spend their days practicing. Patrons will drop by to watch, paying what they feel appropriate. By night, as one of our local tour guides (a rent collector) tells us, things occur that we're better off not knowing about.

These are the titular "courtesans of Bombay," and we eventually come to learn a little (probably too little) about this peculiar industry in India's big cities. The most cutting moment is how one of the narrators notes that pregnant women in this area pray for a girl: A boy is useless, his only potential worth to the family would be in being a pimp to other girls. In the compound, one young girl is so valuable that she can work while the rest of the family just sleeps all day on the floor (as is seen frequently in the crude video footage).

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The Deceivers Review


OK
File under unlikely.

Remember the bad guys in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Those were the Thuggee, worshippers of Kali who happily assassinated and robbed their prey in the early 1800s. Here, a young British officer (Pierce Brosnan) uncovers Thuggees working in colonial India.

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Quartet Review


OK
Quartet is -- quite strangely -- based on a true story. Jean Rhys's novel traces her life in glitzy Paris in the 1920s, one which stood in start contrast to the city lights.

Rhys -- reinvented here as Isabelle Adjani's wide-eyed Marya Zelli -- found her husband, an illegal art dealer, arrested and thrown into prison. Suddenly broke, she shacked up with a pair of Brits of questionable morality, eventually getting cut loose, whereupon she would become a professional writer.

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Maurice Review


Very Good
The second of three adaptations of E.M. Forster novels by James Ivory and Ismael Merchant, Maurice is one of Merchant-Ivory's strongest showings.

A painstakingly produced period piece, this Edwardian drama centers around the title character Maurice (pronounced "Morris") Hall (James Wilby), an Edwardian-era fancy lad who finds himself smitten with a schoolmate during his days at college in Cambridge (though this is of course notoriously against the law in England at the time). At first, he's smitten with Clive (Hugh Grant in his first major film role) but after seeing what happens to a friend of theirs (Mark Tandy) when he's busted for homosexuality and sentenced to hard labor in prison, they both attempt to mend their ways. Clive gets married, Maurice attempts hypnosis. This seems to "cure" Clive -- well enough, anyway -- but Maurice still can't shake it. Eventually he winds up shacking up with the much lower-class gamekeeper at the country estate.

Continue reading: Maurice Review

Howards End Review


Excellent
After 35 years of toiling and only one hit to their name (A Room with a View), the directing-producing team of Merchant-Ivory finally hit their stride with Howards End, a work that would become synonymous with their names and the template for their unmistakable style.

Slow, intricate, and deeply symbolic, Howards End ranks among the top films in their oeuvre. It's a history that, if you look at it closely, really amounts to three greats (End, Room, and The Remains of the Day) and a whole lot of nothing-much-else. But that's a subject for another day.

Continue reading: Howards End Review

Cotton Mary Review


OK
Cotton Mary is a 1950s half-Brit, half-Indian woman in the colonies who runs afoul of her employers -- a stuffy British household featuring new mom Lily (Greta Scacchi). Lily's daughter is a sickly one, and Lily's a borderline unfit mother, so Mary whisks the kid off to her sister for nursing. Yeah, that's the plot -- and the tragic thing isn't that it's a frightful two-hour-long bore, it's that Scacchi is outfitted to look like a fat, frumpy old mom -- which frankly doesn't suit her at all.
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