Saturday, December 9, 2017

HEAT AND DUST: Blu-ray/DVD debut for Merchant/Ivory's 4K-restored semi-classic tale of India in the 1920s and the 1980s

If it is not quite up to the levels of those James Ivory and Ismail Merchant classics, Howard's End, MauriceA Room With a View, or The Remains of the Day, not to worry.  The Cohen Film Collection's new release of the 4K restoration of the duo's 1983 film, HEAT AND DUST is more than good enough to rate a viewing (or two -- if not an outright purchase).

This lesser-known but quite fine collaboration, featuring a screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (based on her novel), continues the team's exploration of the sub-continent, its history, culture and mores, with the usual accent on the stupidity and cretinous entitlement of British rule -- without ever leaving out India's own stupidity and backwardness in its attempts at self-rule. The ironies here literally stumble over each other in their sad, merry dance.

Director Ivory, pictured at right, and his screenwriter also poke fun at the American search for "identity and inner peace" that grew ever more assertive during the latter half of the last century, as the young and naive, impacted by the Hare Krishna and other sects, descended upon India in record numbers, searching and/or whining to beat the band.

The young actor, Charles McCaughan (shown below, right), who embodies this American abroad, is a delight, and thanks to the filmmakers' ability to explore human frailty, hypocrisy and denial so cleverly and gracefully, no taint of nastiness or the misanthropic is ever felt.

The director and screenwriter also excel at making clear how the British view of the Indians (just as vice versa) is tainted, so that anything we hear from either about the other must be taken with that proverbial grain of salt. Oh, it very well could be true. But ambiguity always remains.

The stories here span two time periods: India of the 1920s, during which the assistant collector (Christopher Cazenove, above, left) and his new bride (the gloriously beautiful Greta Scacchi, above, right) must adjust to both their British bosses and the India royalty around them.

This tale plays out against another of India in the 1980s, where we find Scacchi's great niece, played by Julie Christie, above, setting out to learn as much as possible about her great aunt's story. Both tales fascinate, and both actresses are, as expected, first-rate -- as is the entire cast, which is also to be expected in a Merchant/Ivory presentation.

Also important to the story is royalty, personified via the Nawab (above, played by Shashi Kapoor, who died only this past week, at age 79), who is quite drawn to the wife of the assistant collector, even as Ms Christie's character finds herself growing closer to the husband (Zakir Hussain) of the Indian family with whom she is boarding during her research.

Back and forth we go, but under Ivory and Jhabwala's firm and constant hands, we are never confused nor unsure about where we are -- even if, quite intentionally, we can not always be certain of motive or even occasional actions. Eventually all (or most) is revealed, and the results leaves us satisfied but a little sad, as does so much the fine work of this storied team.

Along the way, we're treated to some gorgeous and amazing set pieces --state dinners and the like -- and even get another small but sharp and juicy performance from Merchant/Ivory regular Madhur Jaffrey (shown below, behind those binoculars), playing the mother of the Nawab.

And so it goes, for yet another of this pair's remarkable forays into human nature and cultural prisons. Running a lengthy but always interesting two hours and ten minutes, Heat and Dust will hit Blu-ray and DVD this coming Tuesday, December 12, in a two-disc set packed to the gills with Bonus Features. I hope that Cohen Media Group will continue its restorations of these Merchant/Ivory films until we're able to see every last one of them so beautifully and rigorously restored.

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