Not enough heat and dust

A new DVD collection of Merchant-Ivory's films is the history of the two film-makers' gradual, decorous decline, says Matthew Sweet
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The Independent Culture

It was Alan Parker who wrote the epitaph for Merchant-Ivory. Rolling his eyes at A Room with a View (1985) - which had just won three Oscars and hoovered up $20m at the US box office - he dismissed the picture as an example of "the Laura Ashley school of film-making". The label stuck. Among film critics and commentators, the producer-director-screenwriter partnership of James Ivory, Ismail Merchant and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has come to stand for decorative, conservative and complacent film-making: Sunday-supplement cinema for middle-class people who don't really like cinema very much but can't quite be bothered to read books.

It was Alan Parker who wrote the epitaph for Merchant-Ivory. Rolling his eyes at A Room with a View (1985) - which had just won three Oscars and hoovered up $20m at the US box office - he dismissed the picture as an example of "the Laura Ashley school of film-making". The label stuck. Among film critics and commentators, the producer-director-screenwriter partnership of James Ivory, Ismail Merchant and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has come to stand for decorative, conservative and complacent film-making: Sunday-supplement cinema for middle-class people who don't really like cinema very much but can't quite be bothered to read books.

This month, the firm has launched a 20-disc boxed set of DVDs - conclusive proof that there's more to Merchant-Ivory. Did you know, for instance, that they did surrealism? Savages (1972) is the company's ambitious but rather garbled attempt to make a picture along the lines of Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel (1962), and earn a rave in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma. The title sequence suggests a 1920s musical. Then, after appearing to be a black-and-white anthropological documentary, the film switches to colour and applies itself to depicting a painfully symbolic country-house weekend.

Did you know they did camp? The Deceivers (1988) is a ripping imperial yarn in which Pierce Brosnan uses brown make-up, a turban and an It Ain't Half Hot Mum accent to infiltrate a lethal Hindu sect. It is, in effect, a remake of the Hammer horror flick, The Stranglers of Bombay (1960) - though alas not, like the original, shot in glorious "strangloscope".

Some of these oddities are more than failed experiments. Autobiography of a Princess (1975) is an hour-long piece in which James Mason and Madhur Jaffrey sit in a genteel flat in London, switch off the lights, watch home movies and discuss life under the British Raj. As a meditation on the relationship between personal and political history, it's effective - and far superior to Heat and Dust, which now plays like a middlebrow 1980s ITV drama series.

Merchant and Ivory formed their company in 1961. The first film emerged two years later - The Householder (1963), an adaptation of a novel by Jhabvala, the silent member of the triumvirate. Unfortunately for them, it's probably the best thing they've ever done.

The picture stars Shashi Kapoor as a put-upon, underpaid teacher who is having trouble getting to know or to like the young woman to whom he has been joined in arranged matrimony. When she runs away from home, he seeks consolation with a gang of preposterous eccentrics who have arrived in his neighbourhood in search of "the soul of India". It is a film of affecting sweetness and freshness, with a clever take on the relationship between East and West.

So where did Merchant-Ivory's problems begin? The boxed set suggests that the cracks appeared as early as Bombay Talkie (1970). With this, they abandoned the milieu of their first two films - the lower-middle-class world of teachers and bureaucrats and down-at-heel troupes of Shakespearean players - for the rarefied atmosphere of Bollywood. The picture isn't without charm or wit. But the main narrative business of the picture - an adulterous affair played out between Kapoor's matinée idol and Jenny Kendall's English novelist - is pure departure-lounge pulp. After The Householder and its equally vital follow-up, Shakespeare-Wallah (1965), Bombay Talkie is a disappointing retreat into bland internationalism. The last third of the picture looks like a film made by people who have stayed in too many expensive hotels.

In adaptations of Henry James or EM Forster, this tendency is less disabling - audiences eager for the cinematic equivalent of a Reader's Digest cut-down classic expect the actors and settings to look groomed and correct. The Europeans (1979) and The Bostonians (1984) even manage to make a virtue of their austere tastefulness. Merchant-Ivory's modern-set pictures, however, rarely remain unmarred by this fixation with over-privileged lives.

Only one of their recent efforts has escaped this airless region: In Custody (1993) is a return to the social milieu of The Householder. Om Puri is a college teacher who is frustrated in his efforts to interview a venerated Urdu poet (Kapoor again). Significantly, for this project Ivory relinquished the director's chair to his business partner.

The trouble with Merchant-Ivory is not one of decline; it's more a form of corruption - success, it seems, tempted them away from strong parochial subjects and towards a cinema about the lives of well-heeled expatriates: the British tourists of A Room with a View; Jefferson in Paris (1995); the passport-owning Americans of A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries (1998); and Le Divorce (2003).

Unfortunately, there are no obvious signs that they are about to broaden their interests. Their next film is The White Countess, the story of the relationship between an American diplomat and an aristocratic Russian émigrée. After that, they'll turn their attention to an Indian-themed project, based on the stories of the Kathasaritasagara. It stars Tina Turner as the Hindu goddess Shakti, belting out numbers in Sanskrit and Latin. "The cosmic energy of Shakti attracted me to this film and the film to me," the singer has said. "It signifies new beginnings." What would Parker have to say about that?

'The Merchant Ivory Collection' is available now (£169.99)

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