Doing It Right the Hard Way

The radiant Howards End caps 30 years of Merchant Ivory filmmaking: on the cheap, but with style

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Merchant Ivory films have often been admired, and reviled, for their dogged gentility, the Masterpiece theatricality of their style. Even the soggy films proceed at a confidently leisurely pace, as if Ivory realized that these days time is the dearest commodity; only he can afford it. Happily, the breadth of Howards End allows Ivory to indulge his visual whims -- the riot of landscape, the open-air intimacy of a punt on a sylvan stream -- while forcing him and Prawer Jhabvala to hone every scene ruthlessly, to find economy in gesture. You get the sense of an entire novel, its characters and character, unfolding in 140 minutes. Over the years, Prawer Jhabvala says modestly, "I've gotten better at fitting scenes together, at moving the action along. It's been a 30- year learning process, which is not finished yet."

They will keep working and learning on a slew of tantalizing projects: adaptations of Prawer Jhabvala's novel Three Continents and Thomas Keneally's The Playmaker; perhaps an original, Jefferson in Paris, about the U.S. President when he was ambassador to France. They will keep making films the hard way, as a boutique operation surrounded by huge conglomerates. (Howards End cost a niggardly $8 million.) Merchant describes the process: "You put up the money for the option, get the screenplay written, get the costs down. You raise money for each particular stage as you go along. Yet you retain the rights. You're working for yourself."

And sometimes, as with Howards End, you may have a hit. "Any film that succeeds is a major surprise," notes Ivory. "You have to lie down for a while."

"No," counters Merchant, Laurel to his partner's Hardy, "you have to lie down."

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