Is the Anglo-Indian title character in Cotton Mary — so nicknamed because of her snobbish preference for English cotton — coming unraveled under the strain of Euro envy in 1954 India? Or does her crack-up allow her to display a wound of history otherwise covered up by good manners? Either way, actress and well-known cookbook writer Madhur Jaffrey turns on the histrionics as a hospital nurse going mad who, nevertheless, insinuates herself into a position of responsibility in a household presided over by an overwhelmed Englishwoman (Greta Scacchi), and wrecks the lives of everyone around her.
The settings are pretty, the allusions are broad: The mistress of the house is frantic because she can’t produce milk for her newborn, and Mary sneaks the baby off to be fed by her wheelchair-bound sister; the master (James Wilby) has eyes for Mary’s niece (Jaffrey’s daughter, Sakina Jaffrey). But, this being a Merchant-Ivory film (directed by Merchant, who usually produces), nothing is expressed directly; only the curtains move, blowing in the subcontinent wind.