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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 March 2006, 07:42 GMT 08:42 UK
Ivory faces life without Merchant
By Chris Leggett
BBC News entertainment reporter

(L) Natasha Richardson, James Ivory and Vanessa Redgrave
James Ivory's film stars Natasha Richardson (l) and Vanessa Redgrave (r)

The release of the Merchant Ivory film The White Countess marks a sad landmark in the history of one of cinema's most celebrated independent partnerships.

The historical drama, starring Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson, was nearly finished when producer Ismail Merchant died in May last year, at the age of 68.

But director James Ivory says reports of the demise of Merchant Ivory have been grossly exaggerated.

"It is only the last Merchant Ivory film in the sense that Ismail won't be a living presence, around all the time guiding everything," he says.

Academy nominations

"We are already working on a new film."

The pair formed Merchant Ivory Productions in 1961, going on to make more than 30 films together.

Highlights included Howards End in 1992, which won three out of the nine Oscars for which it was nominated.

Other films included Remains of the Day - nominated for eight Oscars in 1994, including best picture and best director - Maurice, A Room with a View and Surviving Picasso.

Ismail Merchant (right) with film-making partner James Ivory
Ivory (l) met Merchant in a New York coffee shop

Ivory says his late colleague was "very involved" in the editing and completion of The White Countess.

The new film, which has received mixed reviews, sees Ralph Fiennes play a blind US former diplomat who falls in love with the impoverished Russian countess, played by Natasha Richardson, in inter-war China.

Ivory says: "Ismail was very proud of the film and very pleased with how it turned out - and provided me with the highly useful suggestions I've always relied on."

Having filmed The White Countess in China, Ivory will go to Argentina next to film The City of Your Final Destination.

Forward step

He says it will be a "modern story" about an academic's battle to write a biography.

The South American setting means Merchant Ivory will stay well away from the British period "country house" dramas with which it made its name.

"I think they are a thing of the past," says Ivory.

"It's important to do something different all the time."

Ivory is pleased the White Countess is out and the company can try to move forward after Merchant's death.

Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson in The White Countess
In the film, Fiennes opens a club, with Richardson as hostess

"We want, as soon as possible, to get on to this new film," he said.

At the time of Merchant's death he was working on The Goddess, a musical about the Hindu goddess Shakti starring soul singer Tina Turner.

Ivory says the film is now unlikely to happen as "they never had a script that Ismail was happy with".

"It's not something that I could do well," he said.

"It was the kind of thing that Ismail was so excellent at handling."


The release of The White Countess means Ivory has to face promotional duties without the man who Sir Anthony Hopkins said "could charm the birds out of the trees".

One of the film's stars, Natasha Richardson, says the pair complemented each other.

"Jim Ivory is a man of very, very few words and Ismail was the opposite of that," she said.

"Ismail was a very ebullient, effusive man, with an incredible sense of life force and warmth.

Emma Thompson in Howards End
Emma Thompson won a best actress Oscar for Howards End

"He was also a rogue and a sort of ringmaster, juggling a lot of balls in the air at the same time and wheeler-dealering, as you have to do as a producer to make the kind of movies they do on a shoestring."

Richardson is certain Merchant Ivory will remain a force.

"Jim seems absolutely determined and he takes umbrage at the notion that he's going to be put on a shelf," she says.

"He's got a lot of vigour and energy and doesn't want Merchant Ivory to be over.

"For all of us who worked with Ismail it wouldn't ever be the same but it's harder for Jim more than anyone else."

Final Merchant Ivory film debuts
20 Mar 06 |  Entertainment
Stars attend Merchant celebration
18 Nov 05 |  Entertainment
Producer Merchant buried in India
29 May 05 |  Entertainment
Stars remember 'great' producer
26 May 05 |  Entertainment
Maverick Merchant's winning ways
26 May 05 |  Entertainment
Film producer Merchant dies at 68
25 May 05 |  Entertainment

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