The best moments of Merchant Ivory––a documentary directed by Stephen Soucy concerning the legendary production company––feel like their most-successful pictures: restrained and revealing at the same time. Mostly told chronologically and split into chapters with talking heads to drive the narrative, the film dutifully recounts the agony and ecstasy of Merchant Ivory Productions. Sections are devoted to producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and composer Richard Robbins. Dedicated crew members and stars sing their praises while softly criticizing their methods of madness, most of the latter directed at Merchant. Highlights include recollections of Merchant’s culling together funds for each production, often starting a film before all the money was put together. Or Jhabvala’s brutal judgment: Ivory recalls her dislike of Maurice from pre-production onward, all because the novel wasn’t, in her opinion, up to snuff. Somewhat ironically, Maurice is perhaps the most important film the company ever made, something Soucy rightly underlines here.
Many crew members remember the shoestring budgets on masterpieces like A Room with a View. Merchant often seduced those waiting for delayed paychecks with home-cooked meals and the promise of a familial atmosphere. When Ivory is confronted with the fact that a few who worked with Merchant called him something of a con man, he simply laughs––one has to be a bit of a con man to be a successful film producer, the director reasons. Founded in 1961, Merchant Ivory made over forty films and garnered plenty of critical acclaim and awards recognition. For the vast majority of the time, these were wholly independent productions filmed within an inch of their life. Costumers Jenny Beavan and John Bright confirm as much in their incredibly entertaining interview. Among the many movie stars who lend their praise to the documentary, Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, and Rupert Graves are the stand-outs. Though Natascha McElhone might have the best story. I won’t spoil it here. Suffice it to say it’s both funny and lovely.
Despite the diverse commentary, it’s Ivory’s voice that leads the majority of this picture. At the time of publishing he’s still with us, age 95. He discusses all aspects of his partnership with Merchant, though he often sidesteps deeper questions into their personal relationship. A sojourn into the brief falling-out that occurred between Merchant and Robbins (who were also romantically involved) is acknowledged and quickly ignored. There’s his noble defense of the oft-maligned late-period Merchant Ivory projects (specifically Jefferson in Paris and Surviving Picasso) and a melancholy reflection on Merchant’s sudden death and the financial disaster that followed during the making of their final feature: The City of Your Final Destination.
Merchant Ivory ultimately feels like a a devoted document of a group of artists who lived complicated, interesting lives. And while this film may not fully capture that complexity, there are forty films they made that get to the heart of the matter.
Merchant Ivory premiered at DOC NYC and will be released in 2024 by Cohen Media Group.