Walker Art Center

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Filmmakers Merchant Ivory Productions Re-viewed

Dialogue: James Ivory with David Sterritt

  • Retrospective: November 7–21, 1990
  • Regional Premiere: Mr. and Mrs. Bridge

Literate. Intelligent. Civilized.

Those are rare qualities in the movie world, but producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory, along with writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, have built a thriving career on them. Their work favors character over plot, thought over action, and cosmopolitanism over provincialism—and incisiveness over everything.

From the first, Merchant Ivory Productions has broken Hollywood’s rules, working alongside, but not quite inside, the commercial system. The resulting body of films is as varied as it is impressive. Early works, beginning with The Householder (1963), are heavily influenced by Indian life and culture. Henry James and E.M. Forster are among the sources for a group of ambitious literary adaptations. There have also been original projects, from Roseland (1977) to Jane Austen in Manhattan (1980), that form a peripatetic cycle of their own.

“Our films reflect our lives—where we’ve lived, what we’ve done, who we know—and our interests,” Ivory once said, speaking for himself and his colleagues, adding, “Where else could they come from?” That’s a perfect credo for the team’s commitment to a passionately personal cinema.

—David Sterritt

David Sterritt is the Chair of the National Society of Film Critics and Professor Emeritus of Theater and Film at Long Island University. His career as a film critic for the Christian Science Monitor has stretched over 35 years and a career-spanning volume of his work, entitled Guiltless Pleasures: A David Sterritt Film Reader was released last year.

James Ivory