Cotton Mary

             During the heyday of the British Raj in India, there was the
     inevitable intermarrying between the locals and the English soldiers.
     The subsequent generation of Anglo-Indians faced numerous obstacles
     and prejudices; they were people of both worlds yet not accepted in either,
     not unlike biracial children in the United States. In being forced to chose
     one identity over the other, these people made sacrifices.
Cotton Mary,
     the latest Merchant Ivory production, deals with one such woman and
     the price she has to pay.

             Cotton Mary (the superlative Madhur Jaffrey) is the nurse on duty
     when Englishwoman Lily Macintosh (Greta Scacchi) delivers her second child.
     Unhappy over her failing marriage to BBC correspondent John (James Wilby)
     and perhaps suffering from postpartum depression, Lily is unable or unwilling
     to breast feed her newborn. With the child's health in a precarious state,
     Mary spirits the baby to a nearby alms house where her crippled sister
     Blossom (Neena Gupta) serves as a wet nurse. Seizing on Lily's
     appreciation, Mary accepts the position of Ayah (or nursemaid) in the
     Macintosh household. As Lily withdraws further, spending nearly all of
     her time in her garden, Mary, like Eve Harrington in the 1950 classic
All About Eve, makes herself indispensable. She plots against the family's
     longtime servant, installs her niece Rosie (Sakina Jaffrey, Madhur's daughter)
     as an assistant to John Macintosh with the inevitable romance resulting.
     In a last desperate act, Mary does something that shatters her standing
     with the Macintosh family and brings shame on herself.

             While Ismail Merchant is the credited helmer, Madhur Jaffrey
     reportedly worked as a co-director. Whatever the division of responsibility
     between these two talents, the film offers a rich look at post-colonial
     India as filtered through this intriguing personality.
Cotton Mary aspires
     to be accepted as English, but as she is of two worlds, she fits in neither.
     Several British women who visit Lily after the child's birth treat her rudely
     despite Mary's protestations that she is English. Ironically, she gleefully
     badmouths the family's loyal servant by casting aspersions on the
     untrustworthiness of the native population.

             In psychological terms, Mary is a borderline personality and it is
     watching her become more unhinged as she attempts to prove her
     Englishness that propels this film. And in Madhur Jaffrey's skillful hands,
     the character retains the audience interest -- indeed, even its
     sympathy -- despite her being essentially the villain of the piece. Watching
     Jaffrey portray these variegations is a marvel; the more horrible Mary
     becomes, the more mesmerizing the actress is. Greta Scacchi is perfectly
     cast as the languid Lily, who gradually moves from her depressive state
     to one of action. James Wilby does what he can with the underdeveloped
     role of the BBC correspondent and Sakina Jaffrey demonstrates that there
     must be a "talent" gene as she matches her mother's intensity.

             Cotton Mary has its flaws, some scenes drag on a bit too long and
     some of the supporting characters aren't as well-rounded as the leads.
     Still, at its center, in Madhur Jaffrey's fearless performance, is a woman
     who cannot be -- or will not be -- ignored.

                                             Rating:      B-
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.