Cotton Mary

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Cotton Mary

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For upscale arthouse audiences, the producer-director team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory has become a reliable brand name, dispensing elite culture and literary cachet like a good jar of apricot marmalade. In their best work, such as Howard's End and The Remains Of The Day, the characters palpably suffocate under the oppressive weight of all that period decor and etiquette; in their worst, it's the films that are suffocating. Merchant, normally the producing half, proves himself the more tight-buttoned of the two with Cotton Mary, an emotionally anemic look at deep-seated racial prejudice in British India. Tasteful and restrained when it should be charged with tension and melodrama, the film concerns the class struggles of Madhur Jaffrey, a poor Anglo-Indian nurse seeking status among the affluent Europeans in the 1950s. She gets her opportunity when Greta Scacchi, the pregnant wife of a BBC correspondent (James Wilby) stationed in South India, gives birth at her hospital and is unable to breast-feed her child. With the baby near death, Jaffrey steals it away to a wet nurse (Neena Gupta), then convinces Scacchi to bring her on staff at her estate, where she insidiously plots to expand her role in the household. Cotton Mary sounds like British class-skewering in the vein of Kind Hearts And Coronets, or even a starched version of The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, but Merchant concerns himself so much with minutiae that he forgets to dramatize the material. The film is more produced than directed, less a sophisticated melodrama on Anglo-Indian identity than a parade of bejeweled elephants, shiny automobiles, and exquisitely crafted umbrellas. Never has British imperialism been viewed with such (unintentional) nostalgia.

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