montecastello | Dardanelle, Arkansas United States | 05/06/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"From the outset, I offer two cautions: the film is primarily satire, not the tepid bourgeois drama one typically associates with Merchant Ivory and, two, the steamy picture on the cover of the DVD has little to do with the main plot of the film.
These cautions are important because if you really like those earnest, self-important, plodding PBS telenovellas like The Jewel in the Crown, you are unlikely to be happy with this sharp and original work. Madhur Jaffrey gives a first-rate performance with the sort of creative adventurousness one usually associates more with live theater than commercial film. Cotton Mary is not likeable, though she is funny; it took guts for Jaffrey and Merchant not to sentimentalize the situation. It almost certainly cost them box office. But this is thoughtful film making and gutsy, hard as steel satire. This is something other than the usual soft hearted and soft minded claptrap usually cranked out about postcolonial India.
One quibble: it could have been shorter by at least 20 minutes. For instance, the whole Charley's Aunt business could have been eliminated without any serious loss in content."
The remnants of colonialism and its people
Diaspora Chic | Silver Spring, MD | 01/13/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The movie takes place on the Malabar Coast in 1954, years after India gains its independence from Britain. Cotton Mary, a hospital aide and Anglophile takes over the care of a sickly white infant sending it to her wheelchair-bound sister to breastfeed. Mary decides upon herself to take over the English household of the infant's family playing on the mother's fatigue and blindness to what is going on around her (her husband's infidelity, for one thing); pilfering her wares and framing on Abraham, a long time servant to the woman's family; and telling tales of her family to impress the white people who are smug to her stories and the people of color. Her scheme soon becomes too much for her to bear when she confronts the issue of race and class and herself individually. In the end she nearly loses the respect of her family, who believed that they would one day meet the lady of the house."
Preposterous story but fine acting and cinematography
Linda Linguvic | New York City | 01/25/2004
(2 out of 5 stars)
"This 1999 Merchant-Ivory production is set in India in 1954. A wealthy British woman gives birth to a small baby. As she is not able to breastfeed, the hospital nurse, named Cotton Mary, who proudly proclaims that she is half-English herself, makes the woman dependent upon her and moves into the rich woman's house as a servant. Cotton Mary never tells the mother how she is feeding the baby, but the viewer watches Cotton Mary take the baby in a boat each day to visit her own crippled sister who is a wet nurse and lives in a house which the British refer to as an "alms house", where disabled and aged elderly people live. The plot is ridiculous. How can a mother show no interest at all in how her baby is being fed? Certainly a tiny baby needs to be fed more than once a day. And certainly, they had baby bottles and formula in 1954. The woman's husband, who is a philandering and uncaring journalist doesn't care either. And their older daughter who is about eight years old keeps the secret of these clandestine feedings. There's more to the story of course. There are the snobby British colonials and the legacy of colonialism. There is the trusted Indian servant who is forced out of his job because of the lies of Cotton Mary. There is Cotton Mary's niece who has an affair with the husband. But mostly the film is about Cotton Mary herself and her descent into mental illness. The story is awful but the film still had a few things going for it. One was the great acting job of Madhur Jeffrey cast as Cotton Mary. Another was the setting and excellent photography that transported me to a time and place in India that Merchant-Ivory does so well. But the story itself is preposterous and much too long and boring."
Cotton Mary - Speaks!
C. Rocklein | 04/09/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Servile, cunning, ingratiating and conniving... these adjectives pretty much sum up Mary's character for me. Sexually prudish, yet ambitious for some social standing, she sees her opportunity come in the form of a newborn while working as a nurse. The mother is British, the baby premature. The mother is not producing milk, and Mary takes the infant to a crippled wet nurse where the baby is eventually restored to health. Lily, the mother, offers her a job as an ayi in the house, which Mary of course seizes upon. Eventually she poisons the mind of her mistress against her tried and longstanding man-servant, such does her influence become.
On the other hand, her mistress, dope that she is, is susceptible to all of this. Which I found to be a frustrating part early on in the movie. Rest assured her stupidity will be corrected later in the movie. By the time that it is though, I was almost starting to marvel at Mary.. She is one twisted lady - though her mental extremism is largely the product of colonial history combined with her own culture and personal background.
Mary is not a likable character - she's a character, all right, but likable probably isn't one of the words that'll come to mind when you recall her. And yet this very well-done character study of a movie wouldn't have been the intriguing piece of work that it was without her. The movie never asks you to like her, but what she is says something. And no, I wouldn't call this movie satire. Just as I wouldn't call "A Passage to India" satire (which, BTW, is an excellent movie - even if you didn't like this one). There was only one scene which made me wonder, and that was when the new butler (a relative presumably) makes his entrance. We see him pulling flowers out of some flower pots (plant and all). Later, Mary scolds him "I just told you to pick some flowers". That one scene was almost spoofish (of drunken relatives?). But overall I didn't feel this was satire. If it was, what was being satirized? British colonialism against the backdrop of their religion? and some of the people who partially embraced it? the mindset of a nation that allowed them to set up camp there in the first place? No, this wasn't a satire for me, although this movie is very revealing on those topics. Christianity, for example, seemed to fuel Mary's prudish ultra-conservativism - however, she herself was born of a mixed marriage of British father and Indian mother.
This movie was a lot more engaging than I thought it would be. Of course, you spend a lot of that time being appalled at Mary's gall, and wanting to give her "madam" a swift kick! Which may be why this got low reviews from some. Still, shot in south India, the scenery is stunning and based on that alone, it'd be hard to give this picture anything less than 3 stars. Add to that, very fine production, first-rate acting and a story that left me somewhat moved, or at least in awe of the way her twisted mind worked. And while the way she is is obviously an extreme, there's something in it, some act of repression that seems to touch on something found in most cultures and societies or attitudes, for better or for worse.. No this was an interesting story. Cotton Mary said something."
Not a block buster but a very fine movie
S. Mitchell | Tyler, TX United States | 10/30/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"But tell me why that cover on the DVD/Video sleeve? Yes, there is an extra marital but nothing like THAT cover. I found the movie absorbing, beautifully filmed and interesting historically/colonialism."