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Cotton Mary

125 minutes
Starring Greta Scacchi and Madhur Jaffrey
Screenplay by Alexandra Viets
Directed by Ismail Merchant

IN SHORT: From Merchant Ivory. What more do you need to know?

Every once in a while the team of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant makes a film with American characters but, c'mon, we know what we expect from the pair; a tale of fading Empire set in lands we'll never see in times way before we were kidlets. And, greedy folk that we are, we expect stories that would fill a 900 page novel and Oscar® worthy performances from the stars.

Director Merchant takes his time with Cotton Mary, with a running time just over two hours. It feels a bit slow, but it's nothing compared to the three hours plus monsters that'll be rolling out in a couple of weeks. Cranky's always found the best way to experience a Merchant Ivory production is to sit quietly and, consciously, not blink. Just let everything sweep over you until you are fully immersed in the sights and sounds of, in this case, Southern India of 1954.

There, BBC World Service correspondent John Macintosh (James Wilby) stalks the land while his wife, Lily (Greta Scacchi) goes into premature labor. Aided by faithful servant Abraham (Prayag Raaj) and daughter Theresa (Laura Lumley), Lily delivers a small but healthy little girl. When she cannot breastfeed the child, an ingratiating nurse called Cotton Mary (Madhur Jaffrey) swears in God's name that the child will live, and that she will protect the babe with all her power. The solution, to get poor sister Blossom (Neena Gupta) to feed the child, as she had done with other babies. Grateful, and unknowing of the solution, Lily invites Mary into the household as nanny to the child. Then the intrigue begins.

We all read about the Indian caste system back in school. In Cotton Mary we get to see the insidious vestiges of it play out on screen. Mary, herself the half-breed daughter of an Indian woman and a British naval officer, holds herself of a higher stature than any of her colleagues in the hospital. She tolerates her full blooded sister and absolutely despises the darker Abraham and tries to use the Indian moral standards to undermine her younger and much prettier niece, Rosie (Sakina Jaffrey) who has latched on to John's arm as a translating assistant.

One thing not made clear in the film is how close to the shoals the Macintosh marriage really is, from the get go. It's obvious that John is away from home way too much, but that can be attributed to his job. His wife doesn't catch the man's roving eye, perhaps because she pays more attention to her gardening and her tea parties with the regulation Brit old ladies (Sarah Badel, Joanna David, Gemma Jones) than to her relationship. Then again, this is Brit life and Brit life is traditionally subtle. Way too subtle for a crass American like me.

I meant it about not blinking. Cotton Mary presents a time long gone and a culture even more remote. It's a fascinating thing to watch, which is why the rating nudges above the pay per view level. If you like Merchant Ivory presentations, you won't be disappointed. If you hang out at the local arthouse, ditto. Otherwise, wait for tape.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Cotton Mary, he would have paid...


The drop dead recommendation as far as this flick goes is Jaffrey's performance. Whether she is just annoyingly ingratiating to the dim Brits, uppity beyond her station to her own family or just a great example of racial self-hatred I leave to you to decide. Her performance is mesmerizing.

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The Cranky Critic website is Copyright © 1995  -  2017  by Chuck Schwartz. Articles by Paul Fischer are Copyright © 1999 - 2006 Paul Fischer. All images, unless otherwise noted, are property of,©, ®, their respective studios and are used by permission. All Rights Reserved. Not to be used or copied for any commercial purpose. Academy Award(s) and Oscar®(s) are registered trademarks and service marks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.