Revisiting Merchant-Ivory

I admire Merchant Ivory Productions’ body of work. Regardless of budget, location, or casting, there is a high and distinct production quality and a clear voice. By voice I mean the way the filmmakers highlight the narrative of the outsider. They develop or adapt stories in which the outsiders move the plot forward, frame the action, underline the point. This is evident also in the mise-en-scene.

This is why EM Forster’s and Henry James’ novels are particularly suited for the production studio – a perfect marriage of interests. In the work of both writers are characters (many female) who defy, question, or highlight the difficulties of convention. The trifecta that founded MIP – James Ivory, Ismail Merchant, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala – while not exactly outsiders, are certainly permanent expats,truly cosmopolitan in their upbringing and outlook (Berkeley-Germany-England-India-New York). They themselves, perhaps, understand the feeling of dis-location, to be neither this nor that, to have identities which shift depending on the other…

Prem in The Householder, Maurice in Maurice, Helen Schlegel in Howards End, Miss Kenton in Remains of the Day, Marya in Quartet – through their lens, we see complex structures which govern sexuality, gender, class, and even the production of art. They are very much in their milieu but inevitably want to be dis-located in order to get what they want – whether it’s love, honesty, acceptance, or wealth. What is wonderful about MIP films is the impulse to show how convention and society, regardless of space or time, exhibit consistent structures of power. This keeps the work contemporary – it may look like a “period piece,” but it is much more than that.