In newly independent India, an ex-pat British woman gives birth to a sickly baby, who is taken in by Indian nurse Cotton Mary. With the mother wrung out and the father chasing other women, Mary gradually takes over the household.
In the newly independent India of the early 1950s, ex-pat Lily Macintosh (Scacchi) squeezes out a second daughter but is unable to give her sustenance. Cotton Mary (Madhur Jaffrey), an Anglo-Indian nurse, whisks Lily's sprog off for succour with her disabled sister, which is kind of ironic, because hubby John (James Wilby) will soon spurn Lily's bosom too, turning to Mary's young colleague, Rosie (Sakina Jaffrey). Having been invited as nanny into the Macintosh household, however, Mary becomes madder by the moment, framing faithful old butler Abraham (Prayag Raaj) as a pervert and thief, and flouncing about in Lily's clobber.
From period set design to the layered examination of a decaying colonial legacy, there is an unstinting attention to detail here. All very commendable. All very, very long-winded. And it's a basic filmic truth that if you fail to provide an audience with even one character to sympathise with, interest will rapidly flag. So while keenly and no doubt accurately played by Jaffrey (shrill), Scacchi (sallow) and Wilby (caddish), there's no-one to even remotely latch onto.
And although tangibly evoked, what this world of confused nationality and still-imperious, pale-faced gentry - with their endless devotion to afternoon tea - most readily stirs up, is the desire for a quick brew yourself.
It looks pretty and has that stately, graceful style with which Merchant Ivory have carved their niche, but languid camerawork and posh frocks aside, unless you're interested in the social intricacies of post-colonial India or, more importantly, breast-feeding, this is little more than lengthy, mind-numbing torture