If it wasn't clear after the release of The Proprietor that directing is not Ismail Merchant's strong suit, it's obvious now with his new film, Cotton Mary. The didactic script by Alexandra Viets is rendered even more irritating by direction that leaves you wondering whether Cotton Mary is about Cotton Mary (Madhur Jaffrey), an ambitious, narcissistic, half-mad Anglo-Indian woman, or Lily Macintosh (Greta Scacchi), an unhappy Englishwoman whose one overriding passion is gardening. Set in post-colonial India, the story begins with the birth of Lily's second child. Unable to produce milk, she relies on Cotton Mary, a nurse at the hospital, who insists she can save the baby's life if 'madame' will only trust her. Mary brings the child to her sister Blossom, a wet nurse living in an alms house. Lily's husband, John (James Wilby), still hasn't shown up when she leaves the hospital, so Lily hires Mary to care for the baby. Shortly after she arrives at the Macintosh household, Mary manages to unseat the family's loyal butler, Abraham (Prayag Raaj), and the usually well-ordered home-a reflection of colonial India-begins its downward spiral.
Both Lily and Mary are unlikeable characters, so it's impossible to become emotionally involved in the film. When the movie is preoccupied with Mary, her derangement precludes any sympathy you may have for her dilemma as a mixed-race Indian. Her rise in the Macintosh household is also implausible; unbelievably, her madness escapes the notice of everyone but Abraham. When Merchant shifts his emphasis to Lily, the audience is confronted with an inscrutable Englishwoman whose detachment from her newborn remains unexplained and contemptible. While Mary's relationship to Lily no doubt reflects the sad state of people elevated by a colonial power, and then abandoned-Mary attempts to become Lily-it's hard to say what attracts Lily to Mary, or what Lily's own disaffected personality represents in the context of India's post-colonial era. In fact, Lily's discontent is never adequately explained. As a woman abandoned by a feckless husband, she's hardly an example of the evils of British colonialism.
Cotton Mary looks like all those wonderful Merchant Ivory productions. It's beautifully lit and photographed by Pierre L'Homme (Camille Claudel, Cyrano de Bergerac), and well- designed by newcomer Alison Riva. But production values aside, only Prayag Raaj escapes unscathed from this misguided film. Scacchi and Jaffrey don't fare as well, Scacchi being too elusive and Jaffrey too over-the-top. In a predictable subplot, Wilby and Sakina Jaffrey, who plays John's mistress Rosie, are simply awful. Their affair is handled by Viets with all the delicacy of a wrecking ball, but then the entire film lacks the subtlety which is the hallmark of good writing.