19 May 2024
Read Freda Cooper's review of Merchant Ivory review from 2024 BFI Flare

2024 BFI Flare Review – Merchant Ivory (2023)

Read Freda Cooper's review of Merchant Ivory review from 2024 BFI Flare
Their names are associated with period dramas – beautiful settings, elegant costumes and buttoned up emotions – yet, in fact, those films only made up a handful of the 40 plus made by one of the best known and respected partnerships in British filmmaking. James Ivory and Ismael Merchant.

In simply naming his documentary Merchant Ivory, director Stephen Soucy (pictured above with Ivory) has pulled off a very neat trick – a title which encapsulates the film with all the precision and economy you would expect of the duo. It represents the two men themselves, the director (Ivory) and the producer (Merchant), who were work and life partners for over 40 years until Merchant’s death in 2005. It was the name of their company, responsible for some enduring favourites, but equally dismissed as “Laura Ashley filmmakers”. And it also represents their enormous extended family, a circle of regular collaborators from award-winning writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala to many others from both in front and behind the camera who also became trusted friends.

Covering both their individual lives and their extensive output, it would have been all too easy for the film to be just another piece of hagiography. But Soucy clearly believes they deserve better, even if the opening talking heads point towards little more than adoration: there’s much love for them shared among their collaborators and it’s apparent in the memories from two of their acting regulars, Helena Bonham Carter and Emma Thompson. That sense of affection never really goes away, but the director neatly side-steps the bear trap by allowing us to see how Merchant went about his business as a producer. To say he was unconventional is putting it mildly. He would start on a new film with only a fraction of the money in place, combining charm with what one contributor likens to a street trader mentality and clearly had the gift of the gab. But his response to costume designer Jenny Beavan’s suggestion that she be paid for her work – “Jenny, I got you your Oscar. Why should I have to pay you?” – is jaw dropping in its impudence.

The personal relationship between the two men is an integral part of the film, seamlessly woven into their filmmaking story and often viewed through the lens of 1987’s Maurice. That film was made against a backdrop of government homophobia and heightened alarm over the spread of AIDS and Merchant was reluctant to make it. Coming after the success of A Room With A View, it was received less favourably and could have de-railed their careers. Ivory’s Oscar in 2018 for his Call Me By Your Name screenplay, some 30 years after the release of Maurice, went a long way to redressing the balance and is seen, to some extent, as justice. Merchant’s sudden death, however, had a shattering effect on him: there are touching memories of how he struggled to cope with losing his partner and the company bearing their names closed.

For anybody who loves cinema, regardless of how they feel about Merchant Ivory’s productions, this makes for an absorbing, expansive piece of movie memorabilia, full of insights into the filmmaking process and their own particular approach. Aside from the anecdotes about Merchant himself – Ivory laughs when they are mentioned, but never actually denies them – there’s much about Ivory’s style as a director and frequent looks behind the scenes, especially being taken inside the storage rooms full of lavish costumes. It’s the kind of documentary that leaves you wanting to see more of their movies – and making a start on that wish list.

★★★★

Shown at BFI Flare on 16 and 18 March / James Ivory, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Sam West, Hugh Grant, Rupert Graves, Vanessa Redgrave, Jenny Beavan / Dir: Stephen Soucy / Cohen Media Group / Cert: tbc


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