Directors 3: James Ivory

The Arts

The most English of all directors is, paradoxically, a gay Californian whose producer-partner was Indian, and whose screenwriter of thirty years, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, is German-Indian. James Ivory has been repeatedly criticised in England for being too genteel, too safe, too ‘Laura Ashley’. One could read these attacks as being partially homophobic, in the same way that the right-wing director Zefferelli is harangued in the left-wing press who feels that film must always be informed by political belief, but the truth about his films is more complex. While his filmography includes a number of traditional book sources (especially E.M. Forster and Henry James), they only make up around a quarter of his output, which includes the bizarre rise-and-fall-of-civilisation parable Savages, and the satirical Slaves Of New York by Tama Janowitz.

With Lean, Ivory shares an English love of storytelling. The emotional turmoil of his characters is laid bare by their actions, so that both The Remains Of The Day and Howard’s End seem almost more powerful on screen than in their written incarnations. In this he is helped by his long-term composer Richard Robbins, one of the few soundtrack musicians whose work carries an instantly recognisable signature. Ivory is criticised for being too middle class, but his subject is always human nature, and there’s no reason why his films shouldn’t prove accessible and enlightening to all social groups.

In many ways, Ivory is the last surviving director of the Hero In A Jumper film; his leading men are passive, tame, educated, eventually driven to action and sometimes destroyed by it because there is no other choice left. The Remains Of The Day is in many ways a direct successor to Lean’s Brief Encounter in its depiction of understated and often unspoken emotions. For me, Howard’s End actually clarifies Forster’s novel by concentrating on the theme so intensely. This remarkable, subtle director has been typically dismissed by UK critics, but a fresh viewing of his period films reveals the unifying themes of an auteur.

One comment on “Directors 3: James Ivory”

  1. Zefirellli’s main fault is directing dreadfully twee films, ripe with an embarrassment of gewgaws, precious lightings and flying gauze veils. Most of his films looks like garage sale day in a Victorian parlour.

    My favourite Ivory film may been A Room with a View, for all the emotional involvement he creates around such delightfully superficial circumstances. And, as usual, the cast is excellent, as well.

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