The death in 2007 of director James Ivory saddened many of his family, friends and admirers, but it also reminded students of film history of one of the most remarkable partnerships in the twentieth century. For nearly half a century, the team of James Ivory, Ismail Merchant and noted novelist, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala formed a triumvirate of talent seldom rivaled in individual or collective film production. Even a quick review of their work is dazzling. Fittingly during a holiday season, it offers an unparalleled opportunity to avoid the ninety fourth viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life or even the splendidly amusing A Christmas Story for a feast of magnificently textured films. To return to these films is to enter a unique world and to appreciate again that Christmas and a new year are always a cause for reflective celebration and well deserved commemoration.

A Room With a View (1985) One of Merchant and Ivory’s most successful and delightful films was adapted from one of E.M. Forster’s novels. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay framed a charming love story and created one of the most charming films of the decade. It won eight Academy Award nominations, rightly winning three for Best Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction and Costume Design. The film forever halted the almost automatic association of ‘Edwardian’ and ‘stodgy.’ The staid conventions of Lucy Honeychurch, played with freshness and innocence by Helena Bonham Carter, crumble before the lower class but exciting and creative courtship of Julian Sand. Amazingly, for once in his career, the dynamic and versatile Daniel Day Lewis, plays a dour, sexless but proper suitor – and does it brilliantly, while Maggie Smith lights up every scene as a chaperone to class treason! Florence in the background becomes a major character in the film. Few films other than Ivory’s Remains of the Day and Maurice capture the class structure and snobbery as wickedly and wittily as A Room with A View which became, according to one critic, “one of the most romantic of romantic comedies ever filmed.”

Shakespeare Wallah (1965) a much earlier Ivory effort also contained a constantly amusing depiction of class humor, but one on a national and international scale. Set in India with an English touring company, the film studies unobtrusively but lovingly a frequent theme in Merchant Ivory films: the class of cultures. It is not always the great collusions of national rivalries, but rather the insidious fears and suspicions of everyday life that bruise and wound. The film contrasts the teeming world of Shakespeare’s plays with the certitude of English superiority and the love-hate relationship of the Indian audiences for their former rulers. One of the most striking things about the film is the lack of fear in dealing with complex issues and refusing to over simplify them with humor and understanding. It makes every Merchant-Ivory film a pleasurable challenge.

Howard’s End (1992) displayed Ivory’s continuing love affair with architecture as the framework of life and the creative spirit - not surprising in someone who began his studies as an architectural and art major. The Edwardian “Cottage” seems quintessentially English to many today, but Ivory makes the viewer feel the newness of the structure and the passion of a young architect on the cutting edge of his profession while living in an England dazzled by its own pre war complacency. Howard’s End is a soap opera of a novel and every screen writer since Edison has loved sinking their visual teeth into the genre.

Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990) marked one of the too rare appearances of Paul Newman and Joanna Woodward in a portrayal of marital weariness over the decades that rivaled a Sinclair Lewis mainstream novel. The film lovingly studies the claustrophobic structure and façade of a marriage in the way that Howard’s End studied the difference between the passion for a home as opposed to living in a house.

Maurice (1987) like the fantastically popular television series, Brideshead Revisited, brought a sympathetic theme of homosexual yearning and the darkness of inner doubt and societal pressure. Almost every scene in the film, whether of exhilaration or of despair, reminds the viewer that a policy of don’t ask; don’t tell, could only come from a government agency and that the human heart always recognizes inner treason.

The Remains of the Day (1993) was practically an Ivory valentine to the English murder mysteries of the nineteen thirties and worthy of the best of Agatha Christie and the worst of Margery Allingham. Tied up in an elegant and tidy package, the film layers the social classes against the intimate beauty of a great manor and the looming menace of the Nazi rise to power. Anthony Hopkins’s portrait of a rigidly conventional butler, unswervingly loyal to an unworthy master and willing to sacrifice all personal feelings, teeters on a dramatic divide that only a great actor can maintain flawlessly. Only in the ethical questions it raises after the film is over, does a viewer remember that a great actor rarely needs more than his eyes to convey complexity and control..

The Europeans (1979) pits the wily European socialites (a brother and a sister out fortune hunting) so beloved in Henry James' novels against the New England naivety of nineteenth century Puritanism. Lee Remick and Tim Woodward quietly tear up the scenery and the world of their country mouse cousins, the Wentworths, until three marriages resolve the confusion. The reasonably happy ending leaves the scheming Eugenia, played by Remick, in a bravura performance, to return bravely to the sophisticated but empty ennui of Europe. Ivory makes her plight even more dismal than Henry James could – never an easy task. The movie, brilliantly scripted, ironically brought critical charges that Merchant, Ivory and Jhabvala were overly meticulous and true to the novels they adopted, a strange criticism from many who take to task those who deviate from a novel or easily tolerate fifteen hours of a rubbishy Winds of War, carried mainly by an aging Robert Mitchum’s craggy looks and weak acting.

Jefferson in Paris (1995) cast, much to the shock and dismay of many, Nick Nolte as Thomas Jefferson, torn between Sally Hemmings, a slave and half sister to his deceased wife to whom he rashly promised perpetual fidelity, and the plight of Fanny Cosway, a refined artist abused by an irritating and boorish husband. Jefferson loses in both cases; although a sensible viewer might hope he didn’t really remain celibate until 1826! Paris wins. Jefferson in Paris remains absolutely one of the most incredible and fresh recreations of a city and society ever captured on film. Freeze any frame and the viewer has an aesthetic photograph of masterful quality. Turn off the sound in any Merchant and Ivory film, move through another time, another place, and another culture. Nowhere is this clearer than in Jefferson in Paris. To watch this film is to step back into the eighteenth century of Talleyrand: an age sweet, rich, ripe, and poignantly on the brink of destruction. EDM

Other important Ivory films that focus on History include:

The Golden Bowl

The Wings of the Dove

The White Countess

Heat and Dust

Jane Austin in New York