In some ways, 1983's Heat and Dust marks the moment at which Merchant-Ivory "became" Merchant-Ivory. Written by their regular screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, based on her own acclaimed novel, the picture tackles a subject that had become quite fashionable in the early 1980s: the period of British colonial rule in India, a time rife with elegance, exoticism and sociopolitical intrigue. And the movie does have a certain old-fashioned charm, a confident grace that lulls you into its world. It's the story of two women, living in two different eras: Olivia Rivers (Greta Scacchi) is the unhappy wife of a neglectful British civil servant in Satipur, a town that supposedly becomes uninhabitable during the hotter months, while Anne (Julie Christie), Olivia's great-niece, is an intrepid traveler in the present day, determined to investigate her ancestor's life — to discover what exactly happened to Olivia after she left her husband and seemingly vanished.
Intercut with Olivia's tale are Anne's own explorations of the past and of bustling, modern-day Satipur. She spends time with the warm, middle-class Indian family that now lives in what was once Olivia's home, and strikes up a casual flirtation with her landlord (Zakir Hussain). The appearance of Chid (Charles McCaughan), an American hippie who's come to India seeking some prefab notion of spiritual truth, seems a sly comment on a different kind of colonialism, one we find in the modern era — that of the Westerners who see other cultures as mere exotic foils for their own self-growth.
The final act finds Anne and Olivia both isolated and alone in a snowy corner of India — each still in her own timeline but united in a desire to shake free of the world.
With the world falling apart all around us, watching a Merchant-Ivory film from 1983 might, at first, sound like the dumbest fucking thing anybody could do right now. Or maybe it’d just be an understandable, comforting response to the untenable chaos of the moment — “sheetcaking,” I believe, is the...