`Mary' too unpleasant to make viewers care

Movie review

June 09, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Cotton Mary is a conniving, petty, backbiting, egotistical woman whose manners are only partly excused by the fact that she's forced to live under the thumb of a bunch of people no better than she is.

As the central figure in the new film from director Ismail Merchant (the producing half of the Merchant-Ivory filmmaking team), she's meant to symbolize the uneasy clash of cultures that continued to bedevil India even after British rule ended. But she's so pervasively unpleasant it's hard to care what happens to her. And the filevils-of-colonialism theme has been played so often that it's just as hard to care about the film, which treads little new ground.

We first meet Mary (actress Madhur Jaffrey) as a nurse in an Indian hospital, where she helps deliver a British woman's new baby. When the mother, Lily Macintosh (Greta Scacchi), can't produce milk for the child, the ambitious Mary sees an opening: she offers to care for the boy herself, knowing that will make the woman dependent on her and, in turn, provide Mary the "in" she needs to become a key member of the woman's upper-crust household.So Mary takes the baby to her invalid sister, who has the good fortune to be lactating. She never tells her new employer how the child is being fed, and Mrs. Macintosh never presses the point. She's too busy coping with her own feelings of inadequacy - feelings not helped by her lout of a husband (James Wilby), a journalist who'd rather track down elephants than pay attention to his wife.

Mary, meanwhile, is riding this particular gravy train for all it's worth. Soon, she's worming her way deeper and deeper into the family's fabric: lying, scheming, generally being nasty and making life miserable for anyone who crosses her. Of course, Jaffrey's grating performance leaves little doubt that Mary's always had a screw or two loose. We're supposed to wonder what will happen when Mary is brought back to ugly reality, but the payoff is hardly worth the wait.

"Cotton Mary" juggles several subplots, including one where Mr. Macintosh is lured into a sexual relationship with Mary's niece.

The film also plays with the idea of class struggle: Indians of the period (the film is set in 1954) who had British blood in them were considered higher class. And Mary is constantly reminding people that her father was in the British Army.

All of which means "Cotton Mary" has some interesting things to say. If only it had found a more novel way to say them.

`Cotton Mary'

Starring Greta Scacchi, Madhur Jaffrey and James Wilby

Directed by Ismail Merchant

Released by Artistic License

Rated R (a scene of sexuality)

Running time 123 minutes

Sun score * *

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