Another dividend in a Merchant-Ivory movie is the acting--especially by women. (The men tend to be bland and inexpressive, unless you count Anthony Hopkins and Paul Newman, who are expressively bland.) Maggie Smith in Quartet, Emma Thompson in Howards End and The Remains of the Day (Tuesday and Wednesday, September 15 and 16), Felicity Kendal in the 1965 Shakespeare Wallah (Friday and Saturday, September 11 and 12), Teresa Wright and Lila Kedrova as aging, nostalgic ballroom dancers in Roseland (Friday, September 11, and Thursday and Friday, September 17 and 18)--all are rich characters, fascinating to watch.
Not every Merchant-Ivory movie is pretty, or nostalgic, or "chocolate-boxey" wonderful. A few of the 14 in this retrospective are astoundingly forgettable (Slaves of New York, anyone?). However, many qualify as serious rediscoveries of what can be under the picturesque, oh-so-stylish M-I surface. Certainly, The Householder and Shakespeare Wallah, two very early M-I films set in India (and shot in black and white), are memorable despite their wobbly narratives, and the lighthearted Henry James adaptations The Bostonians and The Europeans are great diversions. But the most ambitious and praiseworthy films are those that either take a clear "literary" model or emulate it, and succeed: Heat and Dust and Mr. and Mrs. Bridge both investigate cultural erosion (in India and Kansas City) step by vignetted step, and find the whole process of translation and adaptation both painful and fascinating. These are movies that justify their sumptuous settings, that find sad, deep irony in shallow material luxury.