The top 10 Merchant Ivory films – ranked!

Ahead of the re-release of Heat and Dust, we apply a social pecking order to the duo’s best movies that had James Ivory as director and Ismail Merchant producing

10. Slaves of New York (1989)

No one liked this adaptation of Tana Janowitz’s novel, and I ain’t gonna lie, it’s pretty bad (save for an amazing turn from a drag Supremes troupe). But I have to include it for its sheer bonkersness. How did Merchant Ivory end up making a movie about the downtown New York art scene? Nothing about it makes sense, and I admire that.

9. The White Countess (2005)

The last Merchant Ivory production before Merchant’s death should have been them going out on a high point, with a cast including Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave, and a script by Kazuo Ishiguro. And yet, it never quite gets going. Still looks beautiful, though.

8. The Golden Bowl (2000)

I mean, you have to admire them for adapting a novel that pretty much everyone considered unadaptable. Critics promptly complained that the film felt cold, having apparently never read the book. My pet theory is it would have done better if Cate Blanchett had starred instead of Uma Thurman, but hey, woulda coulda shoulda.

Madhur Jaffrey and Shashi Kapoor in Shakespeare Wallah, 1965.
Madhur Jaffrey and Shashi Kapoor in Shakespeare Wallah, 1965. Photograph: Merchant Ivory/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

7. Shakespeare Wallah (1965)

Although Merchant Ivory are generally associated with English (and occasional American) period dramas, there is also a strong seam of India-themed films in their work. Heat and Dust is probably their best known, but this, about a theatre troupe travelling through India, is better. It nominally stars Felicity Kendall, but Madhur Jaffrey steals the show.

6. The Bostonians (1984)

One of their more overlooked movies, this is easily the best of their Henry James adaptations. Vanessa Redgrave reins in her occasional staginess to turn in a terrific performance of studied neuroticism. If you like your period dramas with a side order of feminist angst, this one’s for you.

James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, 2003
James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, 2003 Photograph: Alan Davidson/REX/Shutterstock

5. Mr and Mrs Bridge (1990)

According to the film’s trailer, this was “the year’s Driving Miss Daisy”, and you have to admire a movie for underselling itself so remarkably. Paul Newman plays a controlling patriarch and Joanne Woodward, his on and offscreen wife, was deservedly nominated for her performance as a woman trying to come up for emotional air.

4. Maurice (1987)

Starring a young Hugh Grant and Rupert Graves, there is more male beauty here than in an exhibition of Greek antiquities. A defiant celebration of gay love that came out in the middle of the Aids crisis, made by two men, James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, who, because of the latter’s family, had to keep their own love secret.

3. Howards End (1992)

In retrospect, this looks like a warm-up for Remains of the Day, but at the time it was seen, rightly, as Merchant Ivory taking the period drama to new heights. Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter are all great, but the defining shot is Samuel West collapsing against the bookshelf, his aspirations finally killing him.

2. A Room With a View (1985)

It has got Helena Bonham Carter in one of the great career-making roles, Daniel Day-Lewis being deliciously priggish and Maggie Smith being scandalised in Tuscany. What more could you ask for? Julian Sands’ weirdly anaesthetised performance as George leaves something to be desired, but everyone else is so good we can just ignore him.

Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in The Remains 0f the Day (1993).
Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in The Remains 0f the Day (1993). Photograph: Moviestore Collection/REX

1. The Remains of the Day (1993)

The perfect marriage of aesthetics and feeling, this is Merchant Ivory at their absolute best. Adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, it is a period drama, but far from the petticoats and crinolines people associated with the duo (as if that’s a bad thing anyway). A sharp look at human foibles, with unforgettable performances from the gold-plated duo, Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

Heat and Dust is re-released on 8 March


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