Movies from the Catalog: Merchant/Ivory

Risking the wrath of fans of superheroes, I’d like to start a dialogue about the films of James Ivory/Ismail Merchant, who had a production company that produced top quality film adaptations of literary works, using Henry James or E.M. Forster as the source material. Ivory and Merchant were also a couple, and Merchant recently died.

This week, I have watched 3 of the films from their catalog, The Europeans, Howard’s End, and Maurice.

I made a review of the DVD of Maurice for Home Theater Forum when it arrived in February, 2004, so I’ll reprint what I wrote there, here.

I received the Maurice DVD in the mail. It is the first of a new series, put out conjointly by Criterion and James Ivory, a 2-disk special edition. It is a beautiful package! and the video has been splendidly captured. Presumably, we will receive A Room With A View and Howard’s End, the other two parts of the Forster trilogy made by Merchant/Ivory.

The first thing I watched were the the deleted scenes (naturally). The deleted scenes show a completely different beginning to the movie, with a storyline about Maurice’s infatuation with a teenage family friend staying with the Halls. The actor playing the young man later played Emma Thompson’s brother in Howards End, but his part was completely cut out of Maurice. He is seen sleeping naked, which seems highly suspect to me — someone in Edwardian times wouldn’t sleep naked (how would I know?). Another cut section concerns the Vicompt. In the theatrical movie, the Vicompt is arrested for lude behavior, and sentenced to 6 months hard labor. In the deleted scene, he is shown contemplating suicide, and then found dead later. Most of the other scenes are extended versions of what is currently in the movie. There is one lingering shot of James Wilby (Maurice) looking at himself in a mirror, naked. No love scene or sex scene between Wilby and Hugh Grant is seen, though Ivory says it was always intended that they didn’t have sex, their love was”pure” and platonic. One scene shows Clive crawling into bed with Maurice, out of loneliness, but then resisting more active sexual behavior.

Many of these deleted scenes are provided here from a VHS copy; in other words, of a very poor quality.

The next thing I watched was the documentary, which is surprisingly candid, containing interviews with James Wilby, Hugh Grant, and Rupert Graves. All three men say they are not gay, but they weren’t about to pass up the chance to star in a big movie. In particular, Grant seems not to have cared about the homosexuality portrayed, although Wilby seemed a little more defensive about it. All three mention that they got thousands of fan letters from Japanese schoolgirls!

There is a second documentary, an interview with the filmmakers, which I haven’t yet watched.

Finally, I watched the movie (which I’ve seen before many times, in its original run, on television, and renting the VHS). The DVD picture is just about perfect, with little edge enhancement or distracting digital artifacts. I still find the movie slow-going (as I find most of Merchant-Ivory movies — I’m not sure the director understands how to direct rhythm of scenes), but I think it’s intelligently made, and surprisingly rich and nuanced. This time, in particular, I noticed how the scenes about homosexual yearnings are woven into a neat texture with subtle pokes at the disparity of the classes. It is pointed out in the documentary that homosexuality was a known commodity in the upper and lower classes, but certainly forbidden in the middle class, and the middle class has always ruled the moral code of a democratic government. It is when stepping outside one’s class for a relationship that the greatest difficulties arose, because the lower class, in particular, were considered tantamount to children — having sex with the gameskeeper, even though an adult, was like “molesting” him. Both Maurice and the Vicompt are guilty of this, but of course, the story was written at a time when the class system was breaking down, and Forster himself wished to contribute to this. All three of the movies contain criticism of the treatment of the lower classes, and criticism of the imposed morality of middle-class Christians upon the general population.

It’s really a very good movie, and I’m certainly looking forward to the other two in the “trilogy.”


7 thoughts on “Movies from the Catalog: Merchant/Ivory

  1. I don’t write fan letters, but if I did, I’d write one to the actors in Maurice! Rupert Graves, especially, was so beautiful in it. I guess that means I have something in common with Japanese schoolgirls. ;-D

    I enjoy many movies made by Merchant/Ivory, but I’m a huge anglophile, so I suppose that has a lot to do with it.

  2. Looking at their catalog, I don’t think I’ve seen any of their movies, though I keep meaning to see Howard’s End and Remains of the Day. Into the Netflix queue they go.

  3. I love Room With A View passionately.

    I watch it about once a month and each time, find something different to savor. It’s my cinematic box of bon bons.

    The pond swimming scene, Cecil putting on his shoes after the engagement is called off, George’s question mark in peas, Charlotte “hearing” the carriage.


  4. Howard’s End is my second-most favorite movie of all time. I could watch it over and over again (which I did when I was in high school).

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