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Merchant Ivory Productions presents
Heat and Dust (1983)

Douglas: I told you, it's the heat. No Englishwoman is supposed to stand this weather.
Olivia: You have these set notions about what Englishwomen are supposed to stand. Why should anyone tell me what I can stand and what I can't stand?

- Christopher Cazenove, Greta Scacchi

Review By: David Krauss   
Published: December 14, 2003

Stars: Julie Christie, Shashi Kapoor, Greta Scacchi, Christopher Cazenove, Julian Glover, Nickolas Grace, Madhur Jaffrey, Jennifer Kendal
Director: James Ivory

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (brief nudity)
Run Time: 02h:10m:20s
Release Date: November 11, 2003
UPC: 037429179222
Genre: historical


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A A-B+B B

DVD Review

Back in the early 1980s, India was all the rage. Audiences found themselves spellbound by films and TV miniseries that chronicled and glamorized the clash of cultures and social unrest that characterized the British occupation of India during the first half of the 20th century. Interest was so intense, it seemed the entire world was discovering the country for the first time. Gandhi, A Passage to India, The Jewel in the Crown and The Far Pavilions captured the public's collective imagination and garnered almost unanimous critical praise.

Sandwiched between these epics, Heat and Dust traverses much the same territory, yet is distinguished by the influences of producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who adapted her award-winning novel. The film possesses all the ingredients we've come to expect from this formidable triumvirate—sophistication, beauty, fine performances, as well as ponderous, almost unbearably slow storytelling and a reserved British flavor that prohibits us from embracing the characters or empathizing with their predicaments. By imposing such a stiff-upper-lip attitude, it becomes impossible to shatter the film's emotional barrier and see past its prestige. It's easy to appreciate the impeccable production values and meticulous attention to detail, but one can only dine on caviar and foie gras for so long. After drinking in the ravishing sets, costumes and cinematography, we crave some meat and potatoes and country gravy to sustain us through the rest of the film. Sadly, we don't get it.

The plot uncomfortably resembles other Anglo-Indian colonial tales, yet the creative treatment helps offset the similarities. Heat and Dust tells the parallel story of two women from two different eras, and how India seduces them both with its mystical magnetism. Although it may be overly simplistic to invoke the cliché, The more things change, the more they remain the same, such a theme permeates the film, as the women exhibit the same desires and longings, make identical choices and mistakes (with one notable exception), and willingly surrender themselves to the culture. All this, despite the fact they live 50 years apart and the India they each experience is totally different. Or is it?

After conducting a series of oral histories and delving into a stash of personal letters, Anne (Julie Christie) travels to India to research the disappearance of her grandmother's sister, Olivia (Greta Scacchi). Married to an upright, uptight British diplomat (Christopher Cazenove) who brings his young bride to Satipur in the 1920s, Olivia finds herself drawn to the Indian customs and people, most notably a powerful Nawab (Shashi Kapoor), whose sensitivity and imagination stoke her dormant passions. Running concurrently is the less interesting story of Anne and her similar involvement with Inder Lal (Zakir Hussain), the Indian man in whose home she boards. The film cuts back and forth between the two women's lives, often in non-linear fashion, until all the pieces fall into place.

Merchant-Ivory films rely only minimally on plot and Heat and Dust is no exception. Absorbing the people and culture of India takes precedence over the story, which is often relegated to window-dressing status. Such an emphasis probably worked better at the time of the film's release—of the avalanche of India-oriented movies, only Gandhi preceded Heat and Dust, which must have lent Ivory's film a more original and fascinating flavor. Yet in the intervening years, India has been overexposed (especially regarding British colonialism), so Heat and Dust now feels like a tedious retread.

The performance of Greta Scacchi, however, remains one of the film's few fresh and surprising elements. Never has the actress been seen to better advantage or more fully inhabited a role. A mere 22 and appearing in only her third film, Scacchi commands the screen with her delicate yet alluring presence and large, sad eyes. While Julie Christie is widely regarded as the movie's "star," Scacchi embodies its central character and enjoys a far juicier role. Christie emits a subtle radiance as she wanders through the Indian ghettos, but is given little to do dramatically, ending up as merely another gorgeous set piece in this lavish tale.

Heat and Dust is very much a typical Merchant-Ivory film: deliberate, precious, understated, and at times—excuse my bluntness—boring. Produced a few years before the duo really hit its stride with A Room With a View, Howard's End and The Remains of the Day, this chronicle of past and present India earns our admiration for its classy presentation, but fails to spark our sensibilities. India may captivate the film's period characters, but for present day audiences, the bloom has faded.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: Although the film shows its age, Criterion has fashioned a lush, inviting transfer of Heat and Dust, which was created from the movie's original 35mm interpositive. Something called The Revival Digital Restoration System was also employed to "remove dirt, debris and scratches," and though a few remnants remain, the print is largely clean and vibrant. A fair amount of grain adds to the period feel, but contrast and shadow detail are both excellent, and no evidence of edge enhancement exists. Colors could be a tad deeper, but still impress. Because visual splendor is Heat and Dust's greatest strength, a top-notch transfer is essential; this effort falls slightly shy of expectations, but outclasses similar efforts from films of the same period.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno


Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby stereo track doesn't possess much oomph, but meets its demands without issue. Dialogue is always understandable and no distortion could be detected. Richard Robbins' Indian-tinged music score enjoys nice presence and helps set the proper mood.

Audio Transfer Grade: B

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Production Notes
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by producer Ismail Merchant and actors Greta Scacchi and Nickolas Grace
Packaging: clear plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 01h:12m:43s

Extra Extras:
  1. Autobiography of a Princess, a 1975 short feature, directed by James Ivory, and starring James Mason and Madhur Jaffrey
Extras Review: Ismail Merchant, Greta Scacchi, and Nickolas Grace reunite for a rather bland commentary track that features few insights into the production. The trio relates a couple of amusing behind-the-scenes stories, but mainly indulges in idle conversation about the action on screen. It's all very jovial, very British, and very exclusive. We feel like we're eavesdropping on a private tête-à-tête, except that nothing particularly interesting is being said. We learn that Julie Christie purposely left the designated cast hotel in favor of more intimate lodgings to immerse herself more completely in the Indian culture, and that Merchant and Ivory engaged in a few creative spats. Scacchi amusingly relates how the Indian people often mistook her for Brooke Shields and Bo Derek, while Grace jokes about his bout with "Delhi-belly." When pressed, Merchant does reveal that Heat and Dust ranks as his favorite film, and Scacchi wistfully admits the role of Olivia was the highlight of her career. "It's been twenty years, and I haven't read as good a script again," she says. It's too bad James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala could not participate, as the perspective of the director and writer surely would have been more enlightening. Only those seeking trivial tidbits should invest their time in this fluffy track.

Much more substantive is the 17-minute Conversation with the Filmmakers, in which Ivory, Jhabvala, and Merchant discuss various aspects of the movie. Jhabvala talks about the difficulty of adapting one's own work (and how she'd never do it again), and how the often dilapidated settings of her book were transformed into opulent set pieces in the film. Ivory chronicles the casting of the then unknown Scacchi, and praises Christie for the "common-sensical intensity" she brings to her role. Merchant and Ivory charmingly spar with each other over details and viewpoints, and composer Richard Robbins briefly appears to discuss his score.

A special treat for Merchant-Ivory aficionados is the short 1975 feature Autobiography of a Princess, which tells the simple yet resonating tale of a Jodhpur Princess (Madhur Jaffrey) living in self-imposed exile in London. On the occasion of her late father's birthday, she invites his ex-tutor (James Mason) to tea, so the two can reminisce about the splendor of royal India. Together, they watch old documentary footage and share surprisingly different memories of the same time period. A mere 58 minutes, Autobiography provides an interesting postscript to Heat and Dust, and, as Jhabvala states in her brief introduction to the film, the two possess similar themes and "belong together." Although a new digital transfer was created for this release, Autobiography looks murky and grainy, with an abundance of print defects, and the monaural soundtrack often obscures dialogue. Still, Mason and Jaffrey create a natural rapport and their understated performances distinguish this subtle film.

A handsome 12-page, fold-out booklet, featuring text on both Heat and Dust and Autobiography of a Princess by Merchant-Ivory essayist Robert Emmet Long, along with cast and credit listings, completes the extras package.

Extras Grade: B

 

Final Comments

Criterion and Home Vision lavish enviable attention on Heat and Dust, but whether the film warrants such deluxe treatment remains open for debate. Fans of Merchant-Ivory films will appreciate the lovely transfer and solid set of extras, but others might be put off by the slow pace and introspective story. Admirers of finely crafted motion pictures should surely consider a rental—just load up on caffeine first.

 


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