Heat and Dust Review

Anyone who is familiar with the output of Merchant-Ivory over the past four decades will find much that is familiar in Heat and Dust. Despite taking a novel as its source, its tale of two inter-racial romances set in different eras offers a familiar focus on the British abroad in India (as in Shakespeare-Wallah, for example), forbidden romantic entanglements (Maurice), and a treatment of India as an almost purely exotic entity - one to lavished with the finest period detail and cinematography (too many to mention).

As with many of their other films, there is the question as to whether these attentions, especially the latter, distract from the main narrative (or in this case narratives) owing to their over-familiarity. The central ploy of using two separate stories - allowing the viewer to consider the changing attitudes in India by tracing the reactions these affairs cause in their respective eras (the time of the Raj and the 1970s) - should provide more “action” than is typical for a Merchant-Ivory film and therefore prevent this from occurring, yet interestingly both tales suffer from the same flaws. Certainly, there are differences as the earlier set narrative is the more intriguing of the two, plus it has a more interesting lead performance from Greta Scaachi (in her debut) as the woman at the centre of the affair, but still Ivory is able to over-power the audience with his other concerns.

The problem for the viewer is that the affairs follow such predictable courses - the one set in the earlier era meets with scandal, whereas the more contemporary one does not - that they must look elsewhere for fulfilment, especially as director James Ivory also seems to have little interest in the primary concerns. This does result in the film being extremely good to look at, especially in the period scenes, but sadly makes it even harder to connect with the central narrative. Indeed, such basic concerns as motivation often seem sketchy or non-existent. We are never, for example, given a reason for Julie Christie (as the woman in the 1970s set segments) travelling to India to delve into the past of her great-aunt (the Scaachi character) other than that she was once a researcher for the BBC. Which is not only damaging for Christie herself (the performance as a result can never really amount to much), but also the film as a whole as the viewer is denied a main focus; any time an attempt is made to engage with the characters, the viewer is prevented by a lack of connection. This perhaps explains the decision to rely on voice-over during a number of occasions, but even this feels forced and not wholly necessary had more attention been paid elsewhere.

Heat and Dust does still provide a few minor pleasures, however. The transitions from one era to the other are handled extremely well, and Ivory does at least create an atmosphere for the times that he is recreating. Most impressively, however, the supporting cast made up of numerous familiar Merchant-Ivory faces provide an excellent ensemble, understandably so as they need less of the depth required of the leading players. These elements do, at the very least, make Heat and Dust a watchable experience, though ultimately it can’t help but add up to very little.

The Disc

For this re-release, Heat and Dust has been presented in excellent quality (much the same as the other Merchant-Ivory titles gaining a release through Odyssey). The original ratio of 1.66:1 to adhered to (here non-anamorphic, though this isn’t too great a problem) and the picture looks especially good, which should be the case for a film which pays so much attention to its appearance. The sound is available in either the original stereo or a newly mixed DD5.1 option. Admittedly, there is no great difference between the two, though this at least demonstrates that no liberties have been taking by the DVD producer with the original soundtrack.

The main extra on the disc is a commentary by producer Ismail Merchant, and actors Greta Scaachi and Nickolas Grace. Entitled “commentaries and memories”, this talk track is largely anecdotal which is fine as far as it goes, but anyone wishing to engage with the film will be left largely disappointed. That said, the informal quality isn’t without its charm.

Merchant re-appears on a 17 minute with James Ivory and writer (and author of the original novel) Ruth Prava Jhabwala. The three discuss the making of the film with more vigour than those involved in the commentary, though their constant contradictions and petty (though amiable) arguments make it difficult to decide who to believe.

The remaining pieces present are of less importance: some notes on the film and the filmmaking partnership, a number of trailers for the film itself and others gaining a release from Odyssey and, oddly, a commercial taken from American television that was used to promote a series of showings of Merchant-Ivory films.

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Last updated: 24/06/2018 12:42:39

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