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BFI Flare 2024 (38th) – ‘Merchant Ivory’: documentary – meeting of minds and the family they spawned…(review & star gallery)

BFI Flare 2024 (38th) – ‘Merchant Ivory’: documentary – meeting of minds and the family they spawned…(review & star gallery)

Nostalgic and enjoyable, if you know the films they made in 1980s and 1990s… and even if you don’t, this is a veritable documentary about the personalities behind successful filmmaking…

THAT Ismail Merchant and James Ivory were a couple is of little consequence to the films they made together – or is it?

From ‘The Householder’ (1963), to ‘The White Countess’ (2005), the two were responsible for something of a spurt in independent cinema in the UK and they helped to create a number of stars – who today remain household names – Hugh Grant, Helena Bonham Carter, and Simon Callow – to name just three.

In this documentary made by American filmmaker Stephen Soucy, there are many interviews with these stars and several people who worked behind the scenes for Merchant Ivory.

Stephen Soucy and James Ivory with his Oscar

Their Merchant Ivory Productions – became simply Merchant Ivory, when describing films of a certain sensibility when they were a force in filmmaking.

Many recount how when they first made films – there was little money and much was haphazard – but at their peak, their irresistible knack of being able to turn sometimes slightly stiff English novels into viewable, accessible and entertaining cinema, garnered many Academy Award and Bafta nominations. Seven in all, states this documentary.

How the two met is sketchily covered at the beginning – apparently at an Indian consulate on the East coast of America.

Merchant was born in Mumbai and clearly had aspirations to be a filmmaker – as did Ivory, who it appeared, had already travelled to India and made a film before the two became a partnership in any sense.

What is clear is that two hit it off very quickly as young men and realised they could work together as filmmakers – with Ivory directing and Merchant, mostly producing.

James Ivory and Ismail Merchant

What we often forget is that Merchant also directed (‘The Mystic Masseur’ in 2001 being one his best known) – but this documentary focuses on the two men’s relationship and how others came into it and worked in constellation.

Along with Indian novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1927-2013) and composer Richard Robbins (1940-2012), the quartet effectively joined creative forces and became the Merchant Ivory house of production. She won the Booker Prize in 1975 for ‘Heat and Dust’ and it was turned into a film in 1983 by Ivory and Merchant.

Merchant, Jhabvala, and Ivory all lived together at a house in upstate New York and it was clear they lived as a ‘family’ there. Robbins lived nearby.

Bonham-Carter, in the documentary, says she was in love with Robbins when she first started working on Merchant Ivory films – and Merchant in turn was close to Robbins.

Ivory and Merchant

Ivory admits in the film that neither of them were exclusive in their long romantic partnership – at one point quite memorably, and good humouredly, Ivory tells Soucy that Merchant, as Islam permits, would take a second wife and then a third and a fourth…

Merchant really deserves a documentary to himself – as does Jhabvala who came from a Jewish German family, married an Indian after relocating to Britain during the second World War, went to live in India, before moving to the US.

Merchant grew up in Bombay (as it was then) and was born into a conservative Muslim family of textile traders. He was introduced to films as an older teenager in Mumbai and moved to New York following his graduation to study Business in New York and met Ivory there.

It was an adaptation of American novelist Henry James’ ‘The Europeans’ (1979) that saw Merchant Ivory Productions’ really breakthrough into the mainstream and enjoy critical success and enable a space for films with artistic integrity and that could also make money.

Soucy covers this golden period from the 1980s very well by interviewing a good many of the stars Merchant Ivory Productions helped to create. Madhur Jaffrey, better known in the UK for her culinary skills, also appears as one of the actors who starred in one of the early films.

Merchant’s own directed ‘In Custody’ (1993) – an adaptation of an Anita Desai novel, which featured Felicity Kendal and her brother in law – one of India’s most famous actors at the time Shashi Kapoor – is covered with Felicity recalling how she came to be in the film.

Soucy’s material is rich and there is no doubt that this is a partnership to celebrate – of course it wasn’t without its problems or challenges and Merchant’s rather sudden death in 2005, following surgery – robbed us all of what have been further glorious chapters of Merchant Ivory Productions as it moved firmly into the 21st century – though it stumbled critically some years later and effectively became bankrupt.

Ivory has directed studio films and became the oldest recipient of an Oscar in 2018 for the best adapted screenplay of ‘Call Me by Your Name’ – turning a coming of age novel, chronicling a love affair between a 17-year-old boy and a 24-year-old male scholar – and how the affair reverberates through the two men’s lives, by Italian American writer, André Aciman – into a film directed by Luca Guadagnino and featuring now global star, Timothée Chalamet.

This is something of a postscript, because the heart of ‘Merchant Ivory’ is really about the relationships that sustained these creative geniuses at their time of their growth and peak – and when Merchant Ivory stood for something many people understood instinctively.

Entertaining, informative with fun interviews, it is well worth watching if you are interested in films (per se) and the process of filmmaking itself and the development of a host of British stars.

There was a strong turnout at the first BFI Southbank screening – with several top actors in attendance.


To view (on desktops & tablets) click on picture and use arrows > by moving cursor to the middle; to close picture, click x on top right; to close gallery, click outside the picture frame…
For caption only, hover cursor over picture. For mobiles, click on pictures to enlarge and read caption and flick through as above… enjoy!

All pics below courtesy of ©BFI and by Millie Turner

Acv rating: **** (out of five)

‘Merchant Ivory’ screened at BFI Flare March 13-24.

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture