Review by Sean Boelman
To no one’s surprise, the cinema history documentary Merchant Ivory is likely going to be a must-see for hardcore cinephiles, but is unlikely to resonate outside of that core audience. Filmmaker Stephen Soucy takes advantage of his exceptional access to subject James Ivory, creating a focus that feels somewhat skewed at times.
The documentary tells the story of Merchant Ivory Productions, the film production company formed from the collaboration between producer Ismael Merchant and writer/director James Ivory, who together created some of the most acclaimed independent films in all of history. Fans might recognize some of their films like A Room With a View and Howards End featured throughout the documentary.
Unlike a lot of cinema documentaries, Merchant Ivory isn’t really about behind the scenes drama or gossip. Instead, it’s an ode to one of the most fruitful collaborations in film history. Sure, it does start to feel a bit like a fluff piece at times, but it’s a compelling watch for anyone who is a fan of cinema.
For a film named after such an iconic collaboration, it is somewhat frustrating how one-sided Merchant Ivory can be. It often feels like there is much more of a focus on Ivory than Merchant. Although there are a few reasons that could explain this — it could be that Merchant was a more behind-the-scenes presence compared to Ivory, or maybe it’s that Merchant passed away nearly two decades ago — it’s still not the portrait of a collaboration one might have hoped for.
However, in exploring Ivory’s story in tremendous depth, it does get to explore some aspects of his story with which viewers may not be as familiar. In particular, the aspects of the film about Ivory’s sexuality are fascinating. Although there was some discussion of this leading up to his Oscar win for the Call Me By Your Name screenplay, this documentary allows his experience as a gay man to be told from the earlier days of his career.
As one would expect, Soucy tells this story using a lot of great archive materials. There is plenty of behind-the-scenes footage and stills to pull from, and it also seems like the filmmakers had unrestricted access to the Merchant Ivory Productions library. The result is a documentary that is sure to be catnip for cinephiles.
Merchant Ivory also offers lots of great talking heads, with Ivory himself as well as many of his former collaborators. The documentary managed to attract some bonafide A-listers with whom Ivory has worked in the past, including Helena Bonham Carter, Emma Thompson, and Hugh Grant. The only iffy thing about the film’s interviews is that Soucy inserts himself inconsistently. It’s enough to notice, but not enough to become a legitimate device.
Merchant Ivory is arguably more effective as a biography of James Ivory than as a portrait of his collaboration with longtime partner Ismael Merchant, but it’s a strong cinema history doc either way. The film knows its audience and caters to their interests.
Merchant Ivory is screening at the 2023 edition of DOC NYC, which runs in-person and online from November 8-26.