Adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from her Booker Prize-winning novel , Heat and Dust is the story of two English women living in India more than fifty years apart. Olivia (Greta Scacchi) shares a troubled marriage with Douglas Rivers (Christopher Cazenove), an English civil servant in the colonial India of the 1920s. Anne, Olivia's grand niece (Julie Christie), comes to the subcontinent -- thirty years after the sun has set on the British empire -- to investigate Olivia's life, which her family regarded as "something dark and terrible."
Shortly after her passage to India in 1923, the beautiful young Olivia finds herself bored by English colonial social circles -- she wonders how people who lead such exciting lives could remain so dull --though she is entranced by India itself. Olivia is introduced to the Nawab of Khatm (Shashi Kapoor), a romantic and decadent minor prince who enjoys a Forsterian intimacy with his British confidant, Harry (Nickolas Grace). The willful Englishwoman begins going to Khatm to spend time with the Nawab and they fall in love, engaging in an affair that is not without wrenching consequences in her public and private lives.
In the present day of the film, Anne investigates Olivia's past with Inder Lal (Zakir Hussain), her Indian landlord. Anne finds herself both in the same rooms and in the same predicament as her ancestress, as she herself becomes involved in a romantic entangelment with an Indian man. Heat and Dust cross-cuts between the lives of the two women as Anne discovers -- and then seems to repeat -- the scandal that her independent-minded ancestor caused two generations before. Anne must then re-assert her own independence, fifty years later.
The supporting cast of the film includes Madhur Jaffrey as the Begum, the Nawab's manipulative mother who holds court like a lioness among the purdah ladies; Charles McCaughan as Chid, the American sanyasi and would-be holy man; Patrick Godfrey as Dr. Saunders, in the first of his many turns as an uncompromising Englishman for Merchant Ivory; and Jennifer Kendal as his childless and mirthless wife.
Jhabvala writes in her novel that, to Olivia, being in India "was like being not in a different part of this world but in another world altogether, in another reality." Scacchi's radiant performance never ceases to convey her wonder at the brave new world she finds in the colonial subcontinent, even late in the film when that view is tempered by the reality of an impossible dilemma. Her on-screen chemistry with Shashi Kapoor, who gives a textured portrayal of a outlaw prince, is apparent from their first moment of eye contact . In the present day of the film, Christie brings a warmth and intelligence to Anne that is at once sensuous and true to the thoughtful voice of Jhabvala's novel.
The India of Heat and Dust is a balance of visual splendor and the understated ironies that are characteristic of Ivory-Jhabvala work. Merchant spares nothing in the production values -- we move from ornate banquets in 1923 to breathtaking vistas in present-day Kashmir -- yet the film's grand exteriors provide the backdrop to closely observed interior lives. The director views India with a lens that is equally informed by his lyrical early work on the subcontinent (The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah), and by his later penetrating social scenes of Henry James and Jean Rhys (The Europeans, Quartet). Richard Robbins provides the music and the score is among his best, employing Indian master musicians in arrangements that bridge Indian classical with 1920s period songs.
A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries is the story of an American family living in Paris in the mid sixties, told from the point of view of the daughter, Channe. The father, Bill Willis, is a successful expatriate writer (based on Kaylie Jones's father, the writer James Jones), a WWII veteran haunted by his experiences in the Pacific. His wife, Marcella, is an emotional, fun-loving woman. The film opens the day five-year old Benoit, a French orphan, is brought into the family for adoption.
Benôit's natural mother, an unmarried French girl who was only fifteen when her child was born, holds up the adoption proceedings out of feelings of guilt and remorse, thus terrifying the Willises with the possibility of Benôit's removal. Jealous, Channe retreats to the protective embraces of her Portuguese nanny Candida, who takes her frustrations out on the small boy. Benôit, who has been moved around from foster home to foster home, keeps his suitcase packed, ready at a moment's notice to be sent back to the orphanage. It is only after much tenderness and reassurance from Bill and Marcella that Benôit relinquishes his suitcase, and asks to have his name changed to Billy.
Against the backdrop of their parents' poker games and all-night parties, the children grow up attending a bilingual school where they struggle to be accepted. When necessary, Marcella intervenes at school, defending her children with a fierce loyalty and railing at the form-obsessed French teachers. Still, Billy wants - more than anything else in the world - to be American. Just as Channe reaches puberty, she is befriended by a sensitive and artistic boy names Francis Fortescue. Francis is fatherless, somewhat effeminate, and the son of an expatriate American mother. They become inseparable. Billy thinks Francis is weird, but Channe admires Francis' knowledge of opera, his ability to tell dramatic stories, and his courage in always being frank and up front. As sexual maturity overtakes Channe, the friendship becomes strained, and Francis, who is excluded from the school's teen-age party scene, becomes more and more withdrawn and morose as Channe looks romantically to the other boys. Their friendship collapses just as Bill announces that at the end of the school year, the family will be returning to the U.S. He explains that a congenital heart problem is getting worse, and he wants to be under the care of American doctors. The children's entire world is suddenly and unceremoniously left behind.
In Sagaponack, Long Island, on Labor Day weekend, the Willises arrive at their new home, an old farm house in the middle of vast, green potato fields. Bill teaches Channe how to drive, continues the tradition of all-night poker games, and plays down Marcella's fears about his family's history of heart disease. Channe and Billy attend the local high school, fitting in no better than they did in Paris. Channe begins having sex in the backseats of cars, searching for acceptance and attention. Unsure of herself, she shares intimate conversations with her father about boys and girls and sex. Bill tries to guide her way but feels powerless; he is getting worse, and is preoccupied with trying to finish his final novel about WWII.
With the leaves falling outside their home and Billy raking the yard furiously, a dying Bill tells Channe that she must read the diary of Billy's pregnant mother, a diary Bill has kept all these years in anticipation of the day when his adopted son would want to know the truth about his origins. Struggling against time to finish his novel, Bill speaks the final chapters into a tape recorder from his hospital bed and passes away.
Billy and Channe are brought close by the enormity of their loss. Marcella tries to give Billy his natural mother's diary, but he refuses to take it. He gives it instead to his sister Channe, in an unprecedented act of love and trust, saying he can manage only one mother at a time. In bravely attempting to fill the role of the responsible man of the family, holding everything together, he comes closer to his American father than he had ever dreamed of being.
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