In Which The Author Uses the Impending Release of the New James Ivory Film as an Excuse to Briefly Regard the Films of Merchant Ivory

The City of Your Final Destination, Merchant Ivory’s first movie without Ismail Merchant, will be released this Friday.

For as long as I can remember, Merchant Ivory movies have met with a strange mixture of admiration and distain. The admiration comes from readers and writers who see in pictures like Maurice and The Remains of the Day the stuff of serious literary adaptation, the distain from hardcore movie people who rebuke Merchant Ivory’s masterpiece-theaterish tendency to favor dialogue and scenery over more rigorous forms of cinematic storytelling. The first group thinks of the second group as narrow-minded snobs, and the second group thinks of the first group as grey-haired fogeys. I’m proud to say I’m a member of both.

At best, these pictures are faithful evocations of lost mores, told with great attention to mise-en-scene and language, impeccably acted, and often beautifully realized. Yes, beauty; on the level of imagery alone, slices off Howards End and A Room with a View are as stunning as any painting at the Met (if not more so). But as a good friend of mine used to say, “Beauty is easy.” I know what he means. Only a fool, when his gondola pulls into Venice, wouldn’t think to remove his lens cap.

So where does that leave Merchant Ivory? Good movie or good housekeeping?

Good movie. Director James Ivory has something no other English-speaking director of costume pictures has – he knows it’s the man that makes the clothes, not the other way around. Take Scorsese, for instance. His period films, for all their strength of decor, show little of life as it was, or even as it might have been. New York, New York, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, Shutter Island, The Age of Innocence (minus Daniel Day-Lewis) and even Raging Bull imbue eras past with contemporary behaviors. Wonderful behavior, rich, evocative, and stirring behavior, but all weighed down to present day by its wonderful, rich, evocative stir. This isn’t meant as a criticism, but as a point of reference.

James Ivory understands the distinction. To watch Anthony Hopkins, in The Remains of the Day, thwart, fight, and deny his every human impulse without ever drawing attention to the fight, is to see an actor in full understanding of his era’s given circumstances. Because, to Hopkins’s Mr. Wilcox, the fight is not a badge of honor, as it would be today; it’s a requirement, part of being a civilized British servant. It’s his job. A director without Ivory’s appreciation for Wilcox’s milieu would ask for more from Hopkins, or try to rationalize this very old, very English attitude by making Wilcox appear to be prisoner to his own beliefs. But Ivory knows too much for that. He knows Wilcox is not a tragedy.

So while The Remains of the Day doesn’t approach Barry Lyndon’s level of technique, it proves that James Ivory, when it comes to the way we were, is as adept a historian as we have in film today.

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