Wavering Between Pointed and Broad
I can't really get into Merchant Ivory films for the most part. I mean, they're beautiful, but I have a hard time sympathizing with a lot of the characters. There's a line that Kevin Spacey delivers in [i]The Ref[/i] about how he'd love to "play with his inner self-ness" that kind of sums it up. Despite the fact that most of the films are set during times of serious unrest, often in places having major problems, the characters are never quite aware of them. I can't say this is universal; I haven't seen every Merchant Ivory film yet made. However, my sympathies do not lie in this movie with the upper class characters for exactly that reason. This is why, though this movie does slip into "laughing at" humour, I'm still willing to go along with it. I'd say the characters you never laugh at are the ones you're supposed to have the most sympathy for anyway, and they aren't the characters who are most important in the films being parodied.
Edward Ivory (Samuel West) is bringing his Cambridge chum, Cedric Trilling (Robert Portal), home to Ivory's End to meet his twenty-two-year-old spinster sister, Emily (Georgina Cates). Edward and Emily's Aunt Agnes (Prunella Scales) is pressuring Emily to marry, but she is difficult to please. Certainly Cedric can't do it. When her life is saved by local peasant George (Sean Pertwee), she is intrigued and repelled. Aunt Agnes decides that the way to convince Emily to marry Cedric is to take the family on a trip to Italy; she hires George to be their servant, as Hudson (Frank Finlay) is too old and anyway so irritated at the family that he's been urinating in the soup again. Once in Italy, Emily tries to get Cedric to ravish her, but Cedric is in love with Edward instead. She falls into George's arms thereafter. Finding Italy unsatisfactory, Aunt Agnes then hauls the family, Cedric, and George to India, where Cedric's uncle Horace (Peter Ustinov) has a tea plantation.
Yes, several of the jokes are anachronisms in one direction or another--the film is set in 1908 but references Gandhi, for example--but that's not really the point. And Prunella Scales (whom you might know as Sybil Fawlty) is quite cheerful about the fact that the best way to play the character was to play her straight, because that sort of person was a self-parody anyway. I mean, I believe playing characters in parodies straight is always the best option, but while upper class British families may not actually have made their servants carry lawn around for them to take tea on, they certainly carried their metaphorical England with them the same as Americans tend to. That's really the point more than any specifics about what people are reading and whether they should be or not--and the Barbara Cartland reference is a deliberate anachronism anyway, really intended as much as a slight on Barbara Cartland as anything else.
I do like that the film never judges Cedric and Edward's attraction to one another. Oh, it judges both characters, and rightly so. Cedric is a snob, and Edward is a twit. (West apparently felt that his biggest challenge was keeping Edward likeable, so you didn't just want him to die in "a gardening accident." I can see his point, but he's still miles ahead of Cedric.) When Emily is drowning, Cedric not only doesn't do anything to help, he calls for help in Latin, a language he can't expect anyone around him (including Edward) speaks. Edward bathes with his bears--calling them teddy bears is just barely not an anachronism, I believe. Neither one of them is prepared to admit for most of the movie that they love each other, because 1908, but the movie implies that it would probably be better for everyone if they could. Certainly there's no reason for Emily to marry him even if he is of a good family and fortune. What's more, there's no shame in the older pair hooking up, even if they are older. They can have all the kinky sex they like.
Really, if I were to pick a theme for the movie, it would be "repression causes more trouble than it's worth." There's a healthy dose of demolishing class barriers, too; the local workingman's pub near Ivory End is called "Scum of the Earth," which is what George's father, Eric (Brian Glover), keeps insisting he and his son are. (Random observation--Emily does a drawing of the naked George to help Aunt Agnes identify him at the beginning of the film, and I'm not sure the drawing, which calls to mind Michael Fassbender in a way, ever appears in my pan-and-scan VHS copy that I finally replaced a bit ago.) George wants Emily to marry him in part because he knows she won't be happy with someone else, class distinction or no. We are very much intended to mock Horace for his insistence on Indian servants. And, yes, it is certainly true that these relationships aren't hurting anyone, be they unusual by right of class, sex, or age. So that's something.