The Bombay-born film producer Ismail Merchant, who died in May at age 68 after abdominal surgery, collaborated with director James Ivory on a dozen elegantly furnished period pieces over the last quarter-century, including The Remains of the Day, starring Anthony Hopkins as a repressed English butler, three E.M. Forster adaptations (A Room With a View, Howards End, and Maurice), and a trove of Henry James tales like The Europeans and The Bostonians. The last Merchant-Ivory production is scheduled for January release, but the faithful may not embrace The White Countess with their usual fervor: Set in Shanghai in the turbulent 1930s, it’s a romantic melodrama with a crass sheen — despite the presence of Ralph Fiennes.
While the going was good, though, it was very good. Beginning in the late 1970s, Merchant-Ivory became the gold standard for stately, well-spoken costume drama, quite often set in refined country houses surrounded by vast expanses of lawn and garden. Merchant and director Ivory were artistic partners (forty films) and life partners, but their relationship was immeasurably enhanced by writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who wrote many of the screenplays. “It’s a strange marriage,” Merchant once observed. “I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew, and Jim is a Protestant American … a three-headed monster.”
Detractors saw their films as pretentious pseudo-lit: At an early screening of Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino ordered anyone who liked The Remains of the Day to “get the fuck out of here.” But the huge audiences who embraced Merchant-Ivory’s polished literacy, good manners, and devotion to high craft continue to mourn the great producer’s passing.