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[whitespace] 'Cotton Mary' Lonely Passion: Madhur Jaffrey plays a nurse with hard aspirations in 'Cotton Mary.'

Contrary Mary

A servant is as snobbish as her mistress in Ismail Merchant's 'Cotton Mary'

By Richard von Busack

IS ISMAIL MERCHANT'S Cotton Mary the least sympathetic story of a tragic mulatto ever filmed? There have been a few movies that show you how an unlovable, insufferable woman can be self-created by her own repression and need. Maggie Smith in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is one example; another is the manipulative, despairing Aunt Fanny played by Agnes Moorehead in The Magnificent Ambersons. It would have taken terrific balance to create another such character. Director Ismail Merchant (working independently of his partner, James Ivory) can't pull it off. He deserves some sort of credit for making a film with such a roundly awful character as the lead. Mary is so ruthless that she even uses an infant as a pawn to her advantage. Cotton Mary is a risky film; it's like adapting David Copperfield from Uriah Heep's perspective.

In India, in the 1950s, the British raj is over, but some English still remain. The Macintoshes are two of them: Lily (Greta Scacchi), a propertied lady who is running the house her parents left her, and her husband, John (James Wilby), a BBC correspondent. Lily goes to the hospital to deliver her child but is unable to breast feed her newborn daughter. A pious and snobbish Anglo-Indian hospital nurse, Mary (Madhur Jaffrey), volunteers to get the baby milk, secretly conveying the child to her wet-nurse sister, Blossom (Neena Gupta). Using her leverage, Mary begins to scheme her way into the Macintoshes' fine house, putting on airs about the superiority her mixed blood gives her over the commonplace Indians. Meanwhile her niece Rose (Sakina Jaffrey) imagines a different way into the master's house: through an affair with the master himself.

The monotonous screenplay is by Alexandra Viets, who indulges in symbolism so obvious that you can't believe you're seeing it again after all these years. Mostly, Cotton Mary is about the contrast of a dry-breasted English woman with the natural fertility of India, demonstrated by women named Blossom and Rose. Neither Viets, Scacchi nor Merchant can explain why Lily allows her life to be taken over so thoroughly by Cotton Mary--is it some form of postpartum depression? In this nigh-zombie state, Scacchi looks hesitant and lost, as if she were waiting for direction. And Wilby's faded handsomeness is all there is to John Macintosh. The reporter's growing affair with Rose is treated queasily by the director, who plainly doesn't approve of the liaison.

In one scene at a garden party, an English club woman lays down her opinion that a half-caste woman carries with her the worst halves of England and India in one person, quoting a long and nasty Kipling poem to prove it. Thing is, Merchant seems inclined to agree, by implying that English snobbery has created the worst half of Mary--as if there weren't a lavish amount of snobbery endemic to India when the British arrived. The soft ending in which Lily finds healing and our antiheroine is ready to begin more mischief caps the insignificance of the film. Cotton Mary is not, as was intended, a portrait of the tragedy of the half-caste, but instead a trying and unlikely story of servant trouble.

Cotton Mary (R; 123 min.), directed by Ismail Merchant, written by Alexandra Viets, photographed by Pierre L'homme and starring Madhur Jaffrey, Greta Scacchi and James Wilby, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the May 11-17, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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