In the beginning of the quite wonderful new documentary “Merchant Ivory”, Emma Thompson is speaking of her introduction to their films. The actress remembers it was their 1986 classic “A Room With a View” and speaks of “the beauty of that piece and the fact that it was so delicate.” In Thompson’s description of this sublime work, the actress sums up what is so remarkable about the films of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. Each one is filled with a delicate beauty, breathing with life and truth. Directed by Stephen Soucy and written by Soucy and Jon Hart, this is the first full-on exploration of the pair’s life and career, but the film is more than a documentary. “Merchant Ivory” is a studied celebration of both the successful career and lasting love/partnership between two men who lived their lives and made their films to their own standards. Filled with an astonishing amount of in depth interviews, the audience is given a window seat as we travel through the world of this innovative filmmaking team. The director effortlessly moves through the Merchant-Ivory pictures, revealing what made their partnership (both professionally and personally) work so well.
Some of the film’s best moments are found in its insights into Merchant Ivory’s sometimes combative (but always fruitful) relationship with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. These moments give weight to the artistry that went into adapting the works of E.M. Forster, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Henry James. There were times when Jhabvala would actually deepen their works by merely adding a scene, making their film adaptations resonate more deeply. Winning two Oscars (for 1986’s “A Room With a View” and 1992’s “Howard’s End”), Jhabvala’s work for Merchant Ivory is some of the most important in cinema history.
In the final credits, the many artists and performers that speak on camera are referred to not as interviewees, but “members of the Merchant Ivory” family. It is through their remembrances where it becomes clear that these filmmakers were highly respectful of their craft, creating a community with the hundreds of people behind and in front of the camera that make it all come together. While there were certainly heated moments on set, the actors and crew (while candid about certain issues) have fond memories of their time working with Merchant Ivory.
The two men were very different. James Ivory was the calm director who studied every detail. Thompson (an actress who hates being given notes from a director) praises Ivory for his inability to give false praise after he told her they needed another take, as he was “bored” by the first. Ismail Merchant was the more animated of the two; a big personality who knew how to get things done as a producer. As Anthony Hopkins states, “He could charm the birds out of the trees.” While certain memories of Merchant’s tactics leave a somewhat sour taste in a few of his former colleagues, he is (as is James Ivory) a man respected and loved by those who knew him.
As we learn of Merchant and Ivory’s personal relationship, the intricacies of what kept them together are effective, as the film’s revelations move beyond the glamour of being filmmakers and into the realities of decades spent as a gay couple. As Ivory explains, for both men, there were dalliances with other partners, but nothing shook the foundations of what the two men built together. Until Ismail Merchant’s death in 2005, they lived together in their New York country home; a paradise for artists of all sexualities where ideas, friendships, and romantic relationships thrived.
The wealth of information contained in this absorbing picture is refreshingly illuminating and inspiring for both film connoisseurs and the LBGTQ communities, the latter of which James Ivory has become an icon. The film’s examination of the duo’s craft is extensive, while the personal details and recollections sustain an effective intimacy, which speaks to the dedication of the filmmakers and the admiration towards their subjects.
Through an uncanny eye for the right material, a respect for the artistry of recreating period settings, and an innate understanding of the human condition, the films of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory continue to endure. Their 40-plus year filmography was a golden era filled with works that (if one is paying attention) are slyly subversive; sometimes romantic and always intellectually engaging, but revolutionary in their examinations of society, relationships, and desire.
“Merchant Ivory” expertly captures what made these two men so vital to one another’s lives and to the world of cinema.
Written by Jon Hart & Stephen Soucy
Directed by Stephen Soucy
NR, 112 Minutes, Modernist Films