Beautiful costumes and a dressed-up aristocracy have always found a devoted audience in theaters. Yet for a stretch in the 1980s and 1990s, the names Merchant and Ivory took on a special place. Named after partners James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, the studio won its talent Oscars and (eventually) conquered the box office. With Ruth Prawer Jhabvala serving as the primary screenwriter, they became known for lush and emotional adaptations of Forester, James, and striking views of repression. Director Stephen Soucy explores the influence of the company in Merchant Ivory. The documentary proves equal parts historical documentation and a moment of acknowledgement for the iconic collaborators.
After meeting at a screening, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory began their decades-long relationship. Not only were they creative equals, but they loved each other romantically for nearly fifty years. Over that time, they recruited an incredible crew to collaborate on more than twenty films. Early on, they developed screenplays from Jhabvala. Soon, they added composer Richard Robbins and other artisans to their team. Over their twenty-plus films of collaboration Merchant Ivory Studios won a half dozen Oscars and critical acclaim.
Soucy acknowledges the various narratives that surrounded the film studio early. The “period piece” moniker got slapped on the studio early. There are questions about making films about the stuffy British aristocracy. Furthermore, questions about their sexuality and their relationship loom in the shadows. Both men would take other lovers, and there were questions about whether their partnership was more business-focused than romance. Merchant Ivory looks at how these dialogues are formed, and finds gray areas in these moments.
We do not have to wonder about how the pair handled these issues. Ivory makes himself available to the filmmakers, often discussing the intricacies of the films and his relationship. His answers appear genuine and honest – after all, he’s lived more than ninety years in the spotlight. Ivory’s perspective helps clarify questions about the process and even admits to the uncertainty it made them feel. While Merchant undeniably loved Ivory, the acknowledgment of infidelity reminds the audience of a truth: relationships rarely make sense to those outside of them.
Ivory’s honesty also pushes Maurice into the conversation as one of their grand triumphs. While it did not receive the acclaim of other features at the time, it remains one of their masterworks. In their exploration of the film, they reveal the pathos and discussions of queerness held strong resonance for everyone. Even when they joke about initial apprehension, Ivory adds to the growing contingency that regards this as an integral part of the Merchant Ivory legacy.
The incredible amount of archival footage and interviews helps piece together Merchant Ivory. However, interstitial narration kills the pacing of the film. Furthermore, it does not sound as crisp or clean as the other stories being revealed. With so many talking heads, it’s a shame that Soucey and his team could not find the narrative in the existing discussions. It genuinely hurts Merchant Ivory from reaching its potential.
Still, anyone interested in film history should check out Merchant Ivory for its grandiose scope. Digging into the details of the business and relationships makes for a wonderful exploration. As titles like Room with a View and Remains of the Day are discussed, the company’s influence becomes evident. With beautiful craftwork, pathos-infused stories, and brilliant work on each side of the camera, this company left an indelible mark on culture.