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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Their company name, Merchant Ivory, is discreetly suggestive, like the first line of a haiku, or like their films. Merchant (Ismail, 55, Bombay-born): the getter, the peddler, the producer, the indefatigable fund raiser from private and government pockets in the U.S., Britain, India and Japan. Ivory (James, 63, Berkeley-born): the begetter, the director of films as smooth, durable, precious and endangered as an elephant's tusk.

With novelist-screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, 64 -- a German-born Polish Jew who escaped to England when she was 11, then lived in Delhi with her Indian architect husband for 25 years until relocating in New York City in 1976 -- Merchant and Ivory form what amounts to a nuclear family, a multinational corporation and a tight little island of quality cinema. "We're like the government of the U.S. sometimes," notes Ivory as the trio sits in a suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel to discuss their new film, Howards End. "I'm the President, he's Congress, and she's the Supreme Court." The usually taciturn Prawer Jhabvala demurs, "They're more like Laurel and Hardy." Or the fabulous Baker boys, harmonizing from one dicey project to the next, with Prawer Jhabvala as their stern muse.

They are also the industry's longest-running creative partnership; the Guinness Book of World Records says so. Thirty years ago this month, Ivory began shooting The Householder, which Merchant produced and Prawer Jhabvala scripted from her novel. Columbia Pictures bought the rights for a pleasant piece of change, and the company was launched. But not into the movie mainstream. "Someone else would have gone and made a house in the Bahamas and lived happily ever after," Merchant says. "But we didn't do that. We put the money into our next film." And so on and so on -- dollar by rupee by pound sterling by yen -- happily ever after.

The triumvirate has collaborated on 15 films, many dramatizing the abrasion of English and Indian cultures: Shakespeare Wallah, The Guru, Autobiography of a Princess. But the best-known Merchant Ivory movies could be called Anglo- English: stately adaptations from Henry James (The Europeans, The Bostonians), Jean Rhys (Quartet) and E.M. Forster (A Room with a View and Maurice). With A Room with a View and their handsomely managed compression of two Evan Connell novels into Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990), the team found a ) fresh, elliptical vigor. Here were snapshots of family scenes that, when flipped briskly, revealed society in bittersweet autumnal splendor.

Now Howards End, Forster's richest novel, has become Merchant Ivory's finest film. Elegant and powerful, accommodating collisions of class and temperament with the grace of a perfect Edwardian hostess, Howards End is the work to which all Merchant Ivory's other films have pointed and aspired.

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