Passion in the Punjab.
Anne (Julie Christie, Don't Look Now, Afterglow), a modern journalist, has always been intrigued by her family legacy. She wants to investigate her ancestors specifically to get to the bottom of a scandal that has only been hinted about by distant relatives. Seems Anne's great-aunt Olivia (Greta Scacchi, Presumed Innocent, Emma) was taken to India in the 1920s by her British bureaucrat husband and set up like all other timid trophy wives in the colorful colony. But instead of blending into the background, Olivia stood out, curious and unconventional. This blatant avoidance of standard English etiquette concerned her spouse, confused her friends, and intrigued the local prince. He too had been admonished for less than scrupulous activities involving the ruling foreigners, criminals…and women. It wasn't long before a flirtation between the two was obvious to everyone.
As Anne travels around the locations and setting for some of the sensual seductions, she also finds herself swept up in the emotions and elements of the exotic country. Just as the majesty and magic of India awakened Olivia, Anne too finds her professional demeanor giving way to romantic flights of fancy. But then the question becomes, what happened to Olivia—and more currently, what will become of Anne? Will there be happiness in this land of alien ideas and spicy secrets? Or will their lives become barren wastelands, subsumed by storms and trapped in Heat and Dust?
Like the images the title conjures up, Heat and Dust is very dry, almost arid in its drama and overwhelming if experienced in long doses. This upright drama of manners and maharajas is both opulent and ordinary, filled with artificial passions and plucked of all its potentially magical elements to become the most elaborate Lifetime TV movie ever made. The fact that it comes from the cinematic classics factory known as Merchant/Ivory—who have made a nice name in the lexicon of luxuriant cinema with such stellar titles as A Room with a View, Howard's End, and The Remains of the Day—makes the routine that much more miserable.
One problem is the dated design of the film. Adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from her own novel, Heat and Dust is a barebones approach to surveying a heretofore unknown nation, an all-symbols-and-no-substance exploration. Released in 1983, when India, its people and its culture seemed like strange hallucinations from an impoverished planet's interstellar transmission, Heat and Dust assumes that we'll swoon over just about anything that remotely looks ethnic and unusual. Now, this may have indeed wowed them all in the early '80s, but Indian ethnicity is such a part of what makes up 2004's great tandoori pot that the hands-off approach doesn't work. We want facts and figures, details and designs, but the cogs and gears of what actually makes this diverse and exotic nation function are merely glossed over. Nothing is explained or examined in depth. And the old-fashioned parameters set up between the British and their colonies are carved out of the ever-dwindling block of clichés. The Indians are "hot and fiery" in both temperament and passions. The English are cool and aloof, with only the most egregious of bodice breakers daring to flip the stiff upper lip and go native. So it's no surprise that the film is so formulaic. It dares not be anything else.
But another issue with the lack of engagement here can also be linked to the film's literary lineage. Whenever a novel is adapted, a lot of internal visualization and thoughts have to be made external and given image. Also inherent in any translation of fiction is the need to condense, redirect, and overlook. One can almost feel the missing moments of Heat and Dust, the deleted arguments and clashes of tradition. Obviously director James Ivory had a lot of issues to address here, and unfortunately, he never really gets a chance to deal with them all. One fears if he did, however, he would also fall short of nailing a single one. His movie occasionally feels like a primer version of civilization comparison. Ivory uses locations, showing them both in their past and present state to underline how "different" things are between then and now, but this awkward appraise-and-discriminate approach seems pointless. So does the mixing of storylines. Both Julie Christie's Anne and Greta Scacchi's Olivia are being "reborn" both as women and as independent individuals, by the exotic tug of India and its people. So what? Okay, the men on both sides are hemmed in by tradition and machismo. What's the point? It seems like Ivory is lost in his own narrative, never getting to the end of the supposition.
The closest Ivory comes to finalizing an ideal is when an American character named Chid—one of the always lost souls who've come to the East to be enlightened, or at least to escape—enters the film. Trying to live the life of a swami or guru, Chid tells an intriguing tale of casting off his worldly goods and attempting spiritual and physical purification. Standing in a gorgeous lake with a row of rapturous mountains in the background, he tells Julie Christie's character about his recent awakening. For a brief instance, the setting, the speech and the sights all gel to make a magical, moving moment of cultural clarity. But then the script comes along and recasts Chid as a sex-obsessed con artist/opportunist, looking to rob or near-rape anybody who gets around him. It's supposed to show a dichotomy, as the entire film is a division of classes, customs, and concerns. But we never do get a clear picture. Heat and Dust is as shadowy as a sandstorm and as blinding as the noonday sun.
For a better example of the themes on the shallow surface of Heat and Dust, one need only look back to Ivory's 1975 short film Autobiography of a Princess to see what the overblown epic offered here could have been. Accessible as an extra on this DVD, it is an hour of opinions and omens, presented in a very inventive fashion. Telling a simple story (always the best kind) of a deposed princess who arranges yearly visits with her father's British tutor, Ivory incorporates documentary footage about the fall of India's ruling Raja class, interviews with members of this deposed, spoiled parade of the privileged, and sharp symbolism to explain the nature of respect. The ex-royal loves to regale her elderly loyalist (James Mason is particularly profound in this quiet, controlled role) with stories of sumptuous living and pageantry. She is really nothing more than a more subtle version of the whining whelps of wealth complaining that their state-sponsored fortunes have been frozen and their palaces procured. The irony is obvious. Britain is itself awash in sovereigns and monarchs, and yet here is a young woman who feels betrayed by her homeland for disenfranchising her for the sake of the rest of the populace. Ivory's lens explores details in the home, underlining issues presented in the conversations and newsreels. At the end, when Mason feels he's performed his tasks and played servant to the still-in-denial daughter of the disposed, the sentimental satisfaction is enigmatic. Autobiography of a Princess is everything Heat and Dust is not: it makes its point clearly and succinctly, and lets its characters, not its conventions, accentuate the drama.
The rest of this DVD presentation from Home Vision Entertainment is scattershot and replete with irritating issues. First up is the less-than-stellar transfer. Offered in an anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen image, Heat and Dust suffers from age defects and filmic flaws. Dirt is obvious, and some scenes are faded and washed out. Occasionally, the picture mesmerizes and jumps off the screen (Chid's watery speech, Julie Christie's final moments in the Andes), but more times that not, this is a soft, unsatisfying vision. Aurally, the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo is merely adequate. Dialogue is heard with crystal clarity, but there is no depth to the sonic dimensions.
Along with Autobiography of a Princess, the other bonus features try, with varying degrees of success, to flesh out this film. The commentary track with producer Ismail Merchant and actors Greta Scacchi and Nickolas Grace (who plays the ex-patriot Harry in the film) is all backslapping and happy memories. Very little of the meat of the movie is discussed: Merchant is obsessed with how much things cost (as a producer, he would be), Scacchi is amazed at how young and inexperienced she felt, and Grace is a typical self-deprecating sod, always willing to put himself and his performance down for the sake of a compliment. There are long pauses with nothing being said, and a lot of inside sentiments that we don't have the proper context to experience. So while the narrators are obviously having fun, we remain uninvited to their private party.
The on-camera interviews with Merchant, Ivory, Jhabvala, and Richard Robbins are far better. They offer more details and reflections on the production, the pleasure of working in India, and the back stage gossip that makes these kinds of question-and-answer sessions so much fun. Along with a trailer and an accompanying essay in the DVD's insert, we are overwhelmed with opinions and praise for Heat and Dust. Unfortunately, one look at the film in the context of 2004 makes all the admiration seem forced. Somewhere amid all the long, languid landscapes and proper gesticulations is a message dying to get out. But everything just ends up ashes to ashes, heat to dust.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• Audio Commentary by Producer Ismail Merchant and Stars Greta Scacchi and Nikolas Grace
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