Set in post-colonial India of the 1950's, Cotton Mary is the story of two Anglo-Indian (part English and part Indian) sisters. Cotton Mary and Blossom, their niece, Rosie and their tangled and complicated interactions with a British household. The drama centers on the relationship between Cotton Mary, who dreams of realizing a British identity and Lily Macintosh, a young woman recently returned to India to live in her childhood home.
Lily's husband John Macintosh, a correspondent for the BBC in South India, is absent at the film start when Lily gives birth two months early to a weak and sickly child. Against the backdrop of Vishu, the Keralan festival of lights, Lily is rushed to an old British Military Hospital now staffed by local Indian doctors and nurses including Cotton Mary and Rosie. The hospital sets the stage for the first part of the film when Lily is unable to nurse her child. Despite the efforts of the hospital staff, the child is close to death when Cotton Mary comes to the rescue by stealing the child away to crippled sister Blossom, who is a wet nurse in a nearby Alms house. Still living in the past when her life was peopled by British ladies of the Raj and their children----Blossom and the other Alms house ladies are revived by having a new white child in their midst.
Mary's devotion to the baby and her success in arranging for the feeding make her indispensable to Lily. When John arrives at the hospital and is unwilling to discuss the baby's condition, Lily reaches out to Mary for help. Fearful that her already disintegrating marriage will suffer further because of the child, Lily offers Mary a permanent position in their home as the baby's ayah (nanny).
Lily wholeheartedly accepts Mary and delegates more of her responsiblities as her own insecurities begin to overwhelm her. Alienated from the small expatriate community whose attitudes toward India are of her mother's era, Lily becomes more and more isolated. Blaming herself for her inability to feed the baby and for the child's weak condition, she gradually loses confidence in herself. Emotionally distanced from her husband, Lily withdraws to her garden and into herself. Gradually Mary usurps the powers of the loyal family servant, Abraham, whom she accuses of stealing, and more importantly, of being dirty. Boasting to her sister and the other ayahs that Master is building her a house in England, near Wellington Castle, Mary begins to achieve the identity she desires.
Roseland is made up of three stories, sometimes connecting, all set in the famed New York dance palace, and all having the same theme: finding the right dance partner. In The Waltz a widow (Teresa Wright) dreams incessantly of her departed husband, imagining his younger self in the Ballroom mirrors, still whirling her over the dance floor. Lou Jacobi, a rough diamond type, brings her to her senses and becomes her new -- and permanent -- partner. In The Hustle three women (Geraldine Chaplin, Helen Gallagher, and Joan Copeland) are all in love -- and dancing -- with the same handsome young man (Christopher Walken), who manages with considerable aplomb for a time to juggle the demands of each. One must call him a gigolo, but he is a gigolo with a code of honor and some principles. The Peabody, the final story, is about the irrepressible, energetic, and ever-hopeful Rosa (Lilia Skala), a Viennese refugee who dreams of winning the Peabody contest. She enlists David Thomas as her co-contestant, but he is poor material -- he has no rhythm -- and in the end she has to give up, whereupon she is caught up in the arms of the dance partner of her dreams.
Roseland (1977) is the first Merchant Ivory film with a contemporary American story, though not the company's first American film.Savages (1972), an absurdist fantasy set in the Stone Age, was actually located in Westchester County, while The Wild Party (1975) was set in pre-Depression Hollywood. All three films depict an enclosed, sealed-in world where time seems to stand still, or is kept out. The abandoned, overgrown estate in Savages; The Wild Party's extravagant California mansion; and Roseland's ballroom with its rosy, enhancing tints and dreamy music: each is a small, self-contained universe.
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