Back in 1963 Harold Pinter and Joseph Losey collaborated on a
dark, haunting picture called “The Servant,” in which a sinister
butler (Dirk Bogarde) gradually grew dominant over his callow
master (James Fox). The film was basically a bitter commentary
on British class distinctions, but it also played beautifully
as a brooding portrait of festering decadence.

In “Cotton Mary” Ismail Merchant, best-known as the producing
half of the Merchant-Ivory team, has undertaken to direct a
similar but much less successful script by novice screenwriter
Alexandra Viets. Set in the newly-independent India of the
1950s, it’s about a Anglo-Indian nurse named Mary (Madhur
Jaffrey) who makes herself indispensable to a well-to-do
British couple whose female half, the rather somnolent Lily
(Greta Scacchi) is unable to provide breast milk for her
newborn infant; Mary has the child secretly fed by her
crippled sister Blossom (Neena Gupta), meanwhile maneuvering
to develop her shady power in the household.

It’s easy to see what Viets and Merchant were after here: the
servant-master relationship is supposed to be a metaphor for
the horrible results of imperialism, just as a similar
relationship in the Pinter-Losey film was intended to make a
point about the effects of class divisions. But despite a
good deal of authenticity in terms of locale and period
atmosphere, the outcome comes across as halting and obvious.
There are several reasons for this. One is the writing, which
is, curiously enough, both overly schematic and oddly opaque.
It’s clear that Mary’s psychological difficulties arise from
fantasies about being essentially English–the result of her
mixed parentage–and from an obsessive drive to win recognition
as thereby superior. It’s equally apparent that beneath Mary’s
obsequiousness to the British lies a simmering hatred of that
“foreign” part of her nature. The family she serves, on the
other hand, are meant to suffer for the pain their country has
inflicted (and, it’s argued, continues to inflict) on a
colonial people.

But as they’re written none of the characters convince as the
archetypal figures they’re intended to be. Mary is portrayed
as so odd and conniving a figure from the very beginning that
it’s practically impossible to believe that anyone would have
entrusted her with a nanny’s role–not even the Macintoshes,
who, as played by Scacchi and James Wilby, are such complete
dunderheads that they go beyond the caricatures of the British
abroad penned by the likes of Noel Coward. The means whereby
Mary finds entrance into the household, moreover–the feeding
of the baby by Blossom, with the ultimately horrified reaction
to it–suggests a theme of “blood poisoning” which is both
unsettling and unsavory.

It’s probable that not even the most subtle and shaded
reading of the title role could have saved the picture, but
Jaffrey’s bug-eyed histrionics surely doom whatever chance it
might have had. Jaffrey seems to be playing to the gallery
here, overdoing things from the start and, amazingly enough,
becoming increasingly agitated and overwrought as the plot
proceeds; the effect is to rob the character of whatever
sympathy she might have possessed, transforming her into far
more of a monster than she should have been. Of course, a
more experienced director might have helped Jaffrey to tone
down the portrayal, but Merchant, whose previous feature work
has been limited to “In Custody” and “The Proprietor,” two
little-known films which got only sporadic release, seems more
interested in creating an evocative mood than in establishing
a proper pace or eliciting the best from his actors. It’s
hardly surprising that this film runs over two hours–far too
long for its threadbare plot and lackadaisical manner to bear.

“Cotton Mary” isn’t without interest; it has the same kind
of morbid fascination that “The Nanny,” that lurid potboiler
of Bette Davis’ later years, possessed. But as a serious
reflection on the impact of colonial exploitation on both its
perpetrators and its victims, it pretty much misses the boat.