Universal // 2000 // 124 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // March 2nd, 2001
"Lily white, lily white -- how many colors God sees, Rosie." -- Cotton Mary
Once upon a time, there was a lovely kingdom called India. It was ruled by a benevolent elite who called themselves the British. But one day, these wise and wonderful British flew away from the magical kingdom and left suffering and confusion in their wake. But a few people stayed behind to keep the British dream alive.
Let us tell that story again, shall we? Once upon a time, colonial Britain ruled India with an iron fist in a velvet glove. After striving for generations to reshape the society in their image, internal pressures forced them to run for the hills, and in 1949, India gained its hard-earned independence. But the plight of a nation struggling to establish its identity in the wake of colonialism is not pretty. India's ambivalence about its own identity has been the source of great art and cultural criticism: Salman Rushdie, E.M. Forster, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Unfortunately, it is also the source of Cotton Mary, a film that also never quite finds its identity.
1954, Malabar Coast. Lily and John Macintosh (Greta Scacchi and James Wilby) live the good life: a lovely house, meticulously tended gardens, plenty of quiet and efficient house servants. Everything in their life is a model of British propriety. Even Lily's trip to the hospital to have her baby takes place with a rigid dignity. When the infant is born weak, and Lily is unable to tend it, an earnest nurse steps in to take charge, announcing, "This is a child from God." The nurse calls herself Cotton Mary (Madhur Jaffrey) and insists that because she is Anglo-Indian, she and Lily share a connection.
Quickly, Cotton Mary moves into Lily's world. She is pushy and overprotective, bossing the Indian servants around and spiriting the baby off to her wetnurse sister without telling Lily how the baby is fed ("We have our ways," she says cryptically). When John Macintosh, a BBC reporter who was away investigating labor unrest, finally turns up (25 minutes into the picture), he finds Mary already moved in. And Mary begins positioning herself to control the household, in the hopes of finally becoming the superior British matron she believes she really is.
It would be unfair simply to dismiss this film as a Merchant/Ivory remake of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Unfortunately, all too often I found myself at least hoping it might be a little more like that film (which is saying a lot, because I hate The Hand That Rocks the Cradle). A couple of my fellow judges rail from time to time about "pretentious art house crap." While Cotton Mary does not necessarily rate as crap, it is a major disappointment from a filmmaking team who usually produces strong work.
Okay, maybe team is not the right word in this case -- and this is my first complaint with the film. James Ivory, normally the directing half of the Merchant/Ivory team, is nowhere to be found here. Instead, directing duties for Cotton Mary are handled by Ismail Merchant, who exchanges Ivory's traditionally deliberate pacing for a pace that could only be described as listless, like a sleepy British aristocrat awaiting his afternoon tea break by the pool. The photography for the picture is quite beautiful: marvelous scenery abounds, and the transfer by Universal captures all the deep shades of green without a blemish. But the film looks more like a travelogue of post-colonial India at times than a narrative which seems to be attempting to critique the identity crisis suffered by Anglo-Indian culture in the wake of Indian independence.
I said "seems to be attempting" -- strike two. Alexandra Viets' script for the film (apparently based on her own play) never finds its footing. The criticism of British attitudes swings between heavy-handedness (white ladies at a garden party tell racist limericks to each other) and complete invisibility (the labor unrest subplot disappears completely from the film). Or is this film not really about the British, but about the Anglo-Indian's own inability to decide which culture they want to be a part of? If so, Mary's increasing instability makes her out to be more of a monster than a pathetic product of colonial indiscretions, and the subplot about John's sexual affair with a pretty Indian girl (Sakina Jaffrey) seems unsure about who is supposed to be manipulating whom. Worse, the film seems to conclude with the notion that quiet acceptance of whatever scraps the British agree to throw to these rejected half-castes is the only proper way to behave. Are we supposed to read this ironically, or is the script more nostalgic for British order than critical? Again, Merchant's languid direction of this weak script leaves us cold.
And the thinly drawn characters do not help much either -- strike three. Lily and John and their disintegrating marriage are supposed to be the emotional core of the film. Cotton Mary is clearly paranoid, so our empathy is never with her or her increasingly grandiose attempts to "become" British. But Lily and John are so bland and underdeveloped (and played with an almost palpable disinterest by Scacchi and Wilby) that we are unable to care about them or their plight. This leaves the audience feeling rather aimless, without a perspective to provide any ground within the film. And the other characters do not help much either, since nobody in this film seems particularly bright or even awake. The only reason Mary's plans go as far as they do is that all the other characters in the film are more clueless than she is. She rambles incoherently, schemes and plots in broad daylight, and even lies about one of the servants to his face in front of Lily -- and he just stands there! I cannot fault Madhur Jaffrey for this mess: she turns in an effective performance as the borderline-hysterical Mary. But she is not given much to work with here, as the script leaves Mary a cipher. Is she "haunted by the specter of colonialism," as the package blurb would have us believe, or is she merely a nutcase? Madhur Jaffrey is also listed as co-director in the closing credits, so I can only assume that she took charge of her own scenes on the set in a hopeless effort to breathe some life into the film.
Well, I seem to be out of strikes, so I'll just move on to the extras. The full-frame trailer included on the disc appears to be slightly overexposed. Two additional "recommendations" are included: a widescreen trailer for Far and Away (Ron Howard's shallow look at Irish immigrants -- between these two films is a good lesson in how not to do post-colonial filmmaking) and a scratchy and faded widescreen trailer for Somewhere In Time. The only reason I can think of why this film is recommended as a companion to Cotton Mary is that people seem to wear a lot of period clothing in both. Although completely different periods. And of course, Somewhere In Time is a romance, and Cotton Mary is most definitely not, in spite of the "erotic" package art. Okay, I give up.
I suppose that since I spent most of the last section lambasting the film, I should say something nice about it. The cinematography (by Pierre Lhomme, who also did Merchant/Ivory's flawed but earnest Jefferson in Paris) is great, but that is to be expected from a Merchant/Ivory production. When my best friend and I sit through a movie we really dislike, but which seems to be well-produced (say, like Dark City), our usual way of dissing the picture after it is over is to look at each other and blandly intone, "Well, the sets were nice."
Well, the sets were nice.
This court orders Ismail Merchant to be handcuffed to his producer's desk and issues a restraining order to prevent him from directing until he takes some lessons from James Ivory. Alexandra Viets is ordered to take a creative writing class before venturing into screenwriting again. Cotton Mary is remanded to the custody of the local mental health clinic.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer