Tuesday, August 14, 2018

A Room with a Popular View: The World of Merchant Ivory

 There’s been much talk recently about the Marvel Universe, and how it might be affected by the Motion Picture Academy’s controversial new plan to add an Oscar for Best Popular Film. At present, no one knows what the criteria for “popularity” might be, and there’s legitimate concern that the Academy Awards might be turning into a People’s Choice-type competition. (Best Screen Kiss, anyone?)

One thing’s certain: the new Oscar will not be won by a Merchant Ivory sort of production. The longstanding partnership that produced such major costume dramas as The Bostonians, Howards End, and The Remains of the Day had no interest in superhero flicks. The movies of the Merchant Ivory Universe are quiet, literate, sumptuously filmed, and usually based on novels by British and American masters. Their target audience: former English Majors, I’m quite sure. Like me.

When James Ivory won a 2018 Oscar for adapting Call Me By Your Name into a screenplay, the Academy was perhaps honoring the Merchant Ivory partnership, the longest in the history of independent cinema. Producer Ismail Merchant and director Ivory were together for 44 years, as both professional and domestic partners. Their nearly 40 films, many of them award-winners, generally also called on the talents of screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabala, who won two Oscars for her work. It was an exotic collection of talents and nationalities. Merchant (who died in 2005 at age 68) once said: "It is a strange marriage we have at Merchant Ivory . . . I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew, and Jim is a Protestant American. Someone once described us as a three-headed god. Maybe they should have called us a three-headed monster!"

All of this is running through my head because I just finished re-watching 1985’s A Room with a View, a classic (and, of course, classy) Merchant Ivory production that competed for 8 Oscars and won three (for adapted screenplay, art direction, and costume design –those creamy white suits for the men and flowing Edwardian gowns for the ladies). The film is based on E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel about sheltered young Lucy Honeychurch who blossoms into a woman in love in the aftermath of a trip to Italy. The film begins at the pensione where a gaggle of affluent Brits on holiday uphold their English standards as a bulwark against the raw Italian passions they encounter in the piazzas of Florence. It’s a reminder, for one thing, of how splendidly the British train their actors, and how well they succeed at conveying lovable English eccentricity. Among the supporting cast are Judi Dench as a romantically-inclined lady novelist, Denholm Elliott as an armchair philosopher, Simon Callow as a jolly parson, and Daniel Day-Lewis as an oh-so-stuffy fiancĂ©. Best of all is Maggie Smith as a prim maiden aunt who drives everyone crazy while insisting that they not worry about her in the least. The romantic center is played by nineteen-year-old Helena Bonham Carter, in her “English rose” period, a far cry from her eccentric look and behavior in such recent films as Oceans Eight.

I’m, not certain viewers will find in A Room with a View much social relevance for the current age. This is escapist fare, with a bit of smart commentary about the pruderies and the cultural imperialism of a bygone era. Amusingly, the one bit of possible controversy involves three of our major characters frolicking quite starkers in a local swimming hole. All three are male, and their behavior is childishly innocent. Quite a neat contrast to the passionate male nudity in Call Me By Your Name.

This Puccini aria, sung by Kiri te Kanawa, beautifully sets the mood for A Room With a View

Friday, August 10, 2018

Puzzling Over Kelly Macdonald in Puzzle: Not Slamming the Door

I admit I have a favorite jigsaw puzzle, saved from my children’s growing-up years. It has 300 extra-large pieces and features lots of friendly Disney characters. It’s just complicated enough to give me a mental workout, but just simple enough to keep me from turning into a nervous wreck.
It can be done in an hour or so, but I wouldn’t dream of timing myself. That would spoil the fun.

I just saw a new film, though, in which jigsaw puzzling provides a lifeline for a repressed woman who badly needs something new in her life. Puzzle, a small indie made by Hollywood veterans, provides Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald (I’ll never forget her film debut in Trainspotting!) with a quiet but complex role that makes great use of her appealing presence. In the film, she’s Agnes, wife to a suburban mechanic, mother to two grown sons, baker of birthday cakes (even for herself), and a pillar of the local Catholic church. Her husband adores her in her happy homemaker role, and is quick to tell the world how “cute” she is. We sense, though, that something is missing. She’s so used to being agreeable that her own opinions are never voiced.

Her unlikely evolution begins when she tears open a plastic bag containing the 5000 pieces of a brand-new jigsaw puzzle, someone’s casual birthday gift. Agnes discovers in herself a talent for pattern, color, and shape that allows her to quickly solve the puzzle – and feel a sense of personal accomplishment she’s previously never known. Then, on a stealthy trip into New York City to visit a puzzle store, she finds herself drawn into the world of competitive puzzling (who knew there was such a thing?) and her life is changed forever. Her unexpected new puzzle partner is veteran Indian actor Irrfan Khan, playing a man who’s everything she’s not: wealthy, educated, cynical, and from a faraway land.  His long list of time-tested puzzling strategies immediately clashes against her own much more intuitive approach. But as they hold practice sessions for the big competition she’s still keeping secret from her family, their relationship blossoms in unexpected ways.

Yet in some respects the relationship that most fascinates me is that between man and wife. Husband Louie, played by the burly David Denman, is convincing as a good-hearted  blue-collar guy who loves his wife but believes it’s his job – as a male and the household’s sole provider – to make all the big decisions without consulting her. Lacking much ambition himself, he can’t see that his wife and his eldest son are restless for new challenges in worlds he knows nothing about. Ultimately Agnes reveals to him (and to herself) how much she’s changed, in an ending that is both surprising and completely satisfying.

It took me a while, after the house lights came up, to see the connection between Agnes’ psyche and that of one of literature’s most classic heroines. In the 1879 drama, A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen’s Nora, -- of a much higher social class than Agnes and Louie --is an adored little “wifey”  whose function in her household is primarily to be ornamental. When she dares to act on her own, we can figuratively say that the roof caves in. Nora’s third-act exit from her comfortable life proved to be a door-slam heard ‘round the world. Agnes slams no doors, nor does she make any big speeches, but her final action is her own quiet declaration of independence. Where it will finally lead her we’re not sure, but I for one am firmly on her side.