The magic of Merchant Ivory

  • Themes: Culture, Film

The unconventional backgrounds and insider-outsider credentials of the film-makers Ismail Merchant and James Ivory qualified them to chronicle, with precision and power, E.M. Forster's world of passion, fragility, and class conflict.

Helena Bonham Carter and Julian Sands in A Room with a View (1985).
Helena Bonham Carter and Julian Sands in A Room with a View (1985). Credit: MERCHANT IVORY/ GOLDCREST / Alamy Stock Photo

In the early 1910s, two middle-aged English ladies – novelist Eleanor Lavish (played by Judy Dench) and Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith), chaperone to her younger cousin, are picnicking in a Tuscan meadow. ‘I have a theory that there is something in the Italian landscape which inclines even the most stolid nature to romance,’ declares Eleanor. Her companion replies with a suppressed quiver: ‘It reminds me somewhat of the countryside around Shropshire, where I once spent a holiday at the home of my friend Miss Amesbury.’ The two women are about to witness a moment of thrilling impropriety, prompted, at least in part, by the landscape: young George Emerson stealing a kiss from Charlotte’s cousin Lucy. This is a pivotal scene from the 1985 film A Room With A View, of which its director James Ivory said: ‘It’s just a great romantic entertainment. And it’s funny. That’s it.’

With Maurice (1987) and Howard’s End (1992), A Room With A View makes up a trilogy of adaptations of E.M. Forster novels by Merchant Ivory, the film company founded in 1961 by director James Ivory and his producer (and life partner) Ismail Merchant. In the wake of these and other films, such as The Remains of the Day and The Golden Bowl, ‘Merchant Ivory’ has crystallised into an adjective and come to define a particular cinematic genre: handsome period drama luxuriously realised, filled with hats and frocks and vicars and tea parties held in lush green landscapes. And while the public have enjoyed the films, critics, especially in Britain, have often sneered at these so-called heritage movies, at what is perceived as their sinister nostalgia for England in the heyday of her Empire, of Oxbridge, servants and landed gentry. This James Ivory has dismissed as ‘an English idea and an English fear’: first and foremost because the heritage evoked in his films is ‘not [his] heritage’.

Leaving aside the fact that many Merchant Ivory films are set in places other than England, and several of them, such as Slaves Of New York, have a contemporary setting, there is nothing monocultural about the creative team behind what James Ivory has called ‘the Merchant Ivory whatever’. Ismail Merchant has described the partnership as a ‘three-headed god’, a ‘strange marriage’ made up of three very different individuals. He, an Indian Muslim from Bombay, who as a child had experienced the horrors of the 1947 partition; the American Protestant director James Ivory, born in California and brought up in Oregon, where he discovered at age 10 that he was adopted; and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a German Jewish writer who took refuge from the Nazis in Britain. After meeting her husband, architect Cyrus Jhabvala, she moved to India, where she lived for over 20 years, writing novels about the post-independence Indian middle classes’ preoccupation with marriage.

The trio coalesced in the early 1960s around a shared connection with Indian culture. Merchant met Ivory at a New York screening of the latter’s short film about Indian miniature paintings, The Sword and The Flute (1959). While in Delhi making another film, Ivory had met Jhabvala, and in 1961 Ivory and Merchant decided to make a film adaptation of her novel The Householder. After making several films in India, Merchant Ivory had considered adapting E.M. Forster’s A Passage To India, but were pipped to the post by David Lean. Instead, they made Heat And Dust (1983), another adaptation of a novel by Jhabvala. At this point the trio of ‘initiated outsiders’ (John Updike’s characterisation of the cross-cultural Jhabvala, which applies equally to Ivory and Merchant) decided to adapt A Room With A View, the story of a difficult love affair between two young English people who meet in Florence. This was followed by  two more adaptations of E.M. Forster’s lesser-known novels: the gay love story Maurice, starring Hugh Grant, James Wilby and Rupert Graves; and Howard’s End, a tale of the complicated interactions between three families of different social backgrounds – the idealistic Schlegels (Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham-Carter), the conventional Wilcoxes, and the put-upon lower-middle-class Basts – which revolves around the ownership of a country house.

Upon returning to Europe from the East, Ivory and his collaborators felt, he said, ‘a little bit like aliens in a way – from outer space’. Their polished and immersive re-creation of Edwardian England is rooted in this outsiders’ sensibility. In the making of the three films, Ivory, who had never really worked in England before, gradually tuned in to Forster’s delineations of English society: ‘The whole class thing I came to understand because of Forster. And observing the English.’ So smooth are the end results, so complete the illusion of a living, breathing Edwardian world that it isn’t immediately obvious how much composition has gone into putting the films together. Jenny Bevan, who designed the costumes for all Merchant Ivory films set in England, has stressed the importance of the characters’ clothing looking lived-in rather than ‘presented’, to that end seeking out fabrics manufactured in traditional northern mills, especially for costume drama and relying on corsetry to alter the actresses’ bearing and ensure that the clothes hang properly while still making it possible – like Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham-Carter) in Room With A View – to run around naturally on a lawn tennis court. The entirety of the production design of Howard’s End, from the layered interiors of the Bloombury-ish Schlegel family home to the bluebell banks of idealistic clerk Leonard Bast’s visionary imaginings, originated in Luciana Arrighi’s exquisitely detailed watercolour sketches.

While Ivory and Merchant both brought to the creative process that unfashionable thing, an eye for beauty – Ivory had originally set out to become a set designer, while Merchant declared laughingly: ‘We know pretty much who our audience are, people who have seen Renoir’s films, or Billy Wilder’s films, or Satyajit Ray’s films… We don’t talk to the barbarians!’ The chief translator of E.M. Forster’s fiction into film was arguably Jhabvala, who not only captured the essence of the novels into the scripts but also, rather unusually, did not consider her job finished until she had tackled the films’ rough cuts in the editing room, removing all inessentials (many of them the director’s favourite scenes) in order to tell the story as clearly and concisely as possible.

To label these films as mere conservative heritage movies is also a misreading of their subversive source material. Howard’s End is a state-of-the-nation novel which asks the question: who shall inherit England? It is significant (and very much at odds with the conventions of its time both social and literary) that the eponymous house, a sort of embodiment of England’s yeoman roots, should after many tribulations pass on to Helen Schlegel and Leonard Bast’s illegitimate son. Moreover, ‘Only connect!’, the book’s epigraph, does not refer solely to Forster’s desire for greater connection across the classes; it is also about connecting the intellect (the prose) with erotic feelings (the passion).

Underpinned by his own closeted sexuality, Forster’s moral imperative – to face the truth about oneself – is played out in Howard’s End through the relationships of the bluestocking Schlegel sisters with the terrifyingly puritanical figure of Henry Wilcox and with Leonard, a dreamer who struggles in vain against his social destiny. In A Room With A View, Lucy attempts to run away from her true, shattering feelings for George Emerson by contracting an ill-advised engagement with someone who may be more socially acceptable but who merely wants her for a beautiful possession, almost ruining her life.

It is in Maurice that Forster’s personal philosophy finds its most explosive expression. Written in 1914, the novel was shown by Forster to a few friends but only published in 1971 the year after his death, and only four years after the passing of the Sexual Offences Act, which legalised homosexuality. When the film was released in 1987, it played against the backdrop of the unfolding AIDS epidemic, which, Ivory believes, ensured a more sympathetic reception. It is worth remembering, beyond the shimmering beauty of the images, that Maurice is an unusual and even pioneering statement, firstly in establishing an unapologetic mainstream expression of gay sensibility on screen (alongside, say, the experimental films of Derek Jarman, seen only by a few), and secondly in being one of the first films – along with Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Launderette – to tell a gay love story with a happy ending.

Beyond this, the Merchant Ivory adaptations of E.M. Forster (and indeed the source novels) appeal to their audience across the sexes and regardless of sexual orientation. That is because Forster’s houses of fiction, haunted with the threat of impermanence, tell us something of the intractability of human passions. And because, as the author Zadie Smith (who has acknowledged Forster’s influence on her own writing) has put it, they remind us that the problems of self-knowledge and intimacy remain, even in our self-congratulatory enlightened times, unsolved.


Muriel Zagha