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Filmmaker James Ivory turns 93 today (July 7) – many happy returns! To mark the occasion, we're taking a look back at some of the brilliant films he made with producer Ismail Merchant during their remarkable 45-year personal and professional partnership. Often collaborating with the seriously talented screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Merchant Ivory Productions became known as the maestros of period drama, and these enduring movies show why.
1. Shakespeare Wallah (1965)
The second Merchant Ivory movie follows a troupe of stage actors traveling across India putting on Shakespeare plays. It's loosely based on the story of Geoffrey Kendal – father of Felicity – who earned the nickname "Shakespearewallah" because of his dedication to Shakespeare during an era when theater was being eclipsed by Bollywood. With a perceptive script by Prawer Jhabvala and winning performances by the Kendals and actress-turned-chef Madhur Jaffrey – who became a frequent Merchant Ivory collaborator – it's still a bittersweet treat.
2. The Europeans (1979)
Though it was shot on a tight budget, Merchant Ivory managed to make their first period drama look pretty lavish. Adapted by Prawer Jhabvala from Henry James' novel, it centers on a fascinating encounter between a wealthy New England family and their more bohemian and eccentric European cousins. Anchored by appealing lead performances from Lee Remick and Robin Ellis, it's something of an unsung gem in the duo's filmography – at least compared to the classics that came after.
3. The Bostonians (1984)
This fiercely intelligent Henry James adaptation has a brilliant, Oscar-nominated performance from Vanessa Redgrave. She plays Olive Chancellor, a leading light of the women's suffrage movement who enters into an unlikely rivalry with her chauvinist relative Basil Ransom (Christopher Reeve). Both are drawn to a charismatic young woman, Verena Tarrant (Madeleine Potter), who's forced to choose between a life of chaste campaigning with Chancellor or Ransom's offer of romance coupled with dull subservience. It's a gripping, character-driven story that Merchant, Ivory, and Prawer Jhabvala capture with real class.
4. A Room with a View (1985)
Merchant Ivory's reputation really grew thanks to this stellar E.M. Forster adaptation with an Oscar-winning Prawer Jhabvala screenplay. Helena Bonham Carter stars as Lucy Honeychurch, a young woman who falls for free-spirited George Emerson (Julian Sands) while touring Italy in 1907 with her sensible chaperone Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith). Back in England, Honeychurch is torn between a life of excitement with Emerson or a steady marriage to wealthy Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis). Still intoxicating today, it's also notable for being the film that jump-started Judi Dench’s movie career.
5. Maurice (1987)
Merchant Ivory's second E.M. Forster adaptation chronicles queer love at a time when homosexuality in England was both illegal. James Wilby stars as the title character, a Cambridge undergraduate who realizes he is gay when dashing fellow student Clive Durham (Hugh Grant) confesses his love for him. It's a touching study of repressed longing made especially poignant by the knowledge that Ivory and Merchant were supremely discreet about their own romantic relationship for the sake of the latter's conservative family.
6. Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990)
Adapted by Prawer Jhabvala from Evan S. Connell's popular novels, this somewhat underrated film explores changing social attitudes in the 1930s. Real-life husband-and-wife Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward play the title characters, an upper-crust Kansas City couple whose traditional values are gradually being rejected by their open-minded children. Woodward deservedly earned an Oscar nomination for her affecting performance as a stifled wife trying to hold her family together.
7. Howards End (1992)
Following A Room with a View and Maurice, this was the third Merchant Ivory adaptation of an E.M. Forster novel. It's arguably their most accomplished movie of all, earning nine Oscar nominations (and winning two) for its crisp depiction of class relations in early 20th century England. Emma Thompson won the Best Actress award for her superbly nuanced performance as Margaret Schlegel, an upper-class liberal who is bequeathed a beautiful country house by her friend Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave), only for Wilcox's conservative husband Henry (Anthony Hopkins) to overrule his wife's dying wish. It's subtle but super-engrossing stuff.
8. The Remains of the Day (1993)
Merchant Ivory's hot streak continued with this handsome adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's prizewinning novel, which earned eight Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Director. Anthony Hopkins stars as the buttoned-up butler James Stevens, who remains loyal to his aristocratic employer Lord Darlington (James Fox) despite his Nazi sympathies, while fending off romantic advances from well-meaning housekeeper Mrs. Kenton (Emma Thompson). It's a quietly heartbreaking meditation on regret and wasted opportunities.
9. The White Countess (2005)
Another Kazuo Ishiguro adaptation, this was the final movie produced by Merchant, who died shortly before shooting wrapped. Compared to some of their earlier classics, its depiction of a disparate group of migrants struggling to find their feet in 1930s Shanghai feels a little listless; it's a solid rather than spectacular effort. Still, it boasts typically lush production values and fine performances from Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, and Lynn Redgrave.
10. Call Me by Your Name (2017)
At one point, Ivory intended to co-direct this coming-of-age movie alongside Luca Guadagnino, but he stepped down shortly before production began. Still, he remained on board as a producer and also wrote the beautifully poignant screenplay based on André Aciman's novel. His light touch definitely illuminates the stirring love story between Timothée Chalamet's timid Elio and Armie Hammer's older, more self-confident Oliver. So when he won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, becoming at 89 the oldest winner in Academy Awards history, it felt thoroughly well deserved.
Have we missed one of your favorite Merchant Ivory movies?