Industry Gathers for Merchant Farewell
Britain's film world gathered at a film premiere last night to pay a final farewell to Ismail Merchant. Also present was his director and co-producing partner in what turned out to be their final collaboration. Merchant's "surrogate" family - writers and actors - attended in strength for the screening of The White Countess, from his co-producer in 23 Merchant Ivory films, James Ivory, to Madeleine Daly, a ten year old who appears in the last film of his 45-year career.
The White Countess was made in Shanghai, bringing Ralph Fiennes together with three of the Redgrave acting dynasty for the first time. The film is set in the cosmopolitan city of Shanghai in 1936, just prior to the Japanese invasion.
Merchant died last May at the age of 68 during post production of the Shanghai movie while he was setting up another. It was his most ambitious production yet in a string of elegant literary adaptations like A Room With a View, The Bostonians, Howards End and The Remains of the Day.
The "unbroken friendship" within the company, so described by writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, was clearly evidenced by last night's gathering at The Curzon Cinema. Present were Melvyn Bragg who co-produced two Merchant-Ivory titles, Greta Scacchi and Christopher Cazenove who acted in Heat and Dust, Nickolas Grace, who appears in The Golden Bowl, Joanna David from Cotton Mary, James Wilby of Maurice and Natasha McElhone who was in Surviving Picasso.
Madelaine Potter with a starring role in The White Countess attended the premiere with her daughter Madeleine Daly who also appears in the film.
Vanessa Redgrave, who was always a Merchant-Ivory favourite is in the film along with her sister Lynn Redgrave and her daughter Natasha Richardson. In The White Countess, the two Redgrave sisters play a pair of matriarchs of grand imperial style. Vanessa Redgrave's daughter plays desperately poor taxi-dancer Countess Sophie. Ralph Fiennes plays a blind former American diplomat who wants to open the "bar of my dreams."
The film's co-producer, Paul Bradley, who has worked on 23 Merchant-Ivory films, said: "China was a pioneering experience, under an entirely different set of rules. Ismail, in his usual way, took up the challenge. His spirit hasn't dimmed at all. He's still beaming down on us, inspiring everybody, expecting us to crack on."