Howards End [Blu-Ray]
Director : James Ivory
Screenplay : Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (based on the novel by E.M. Forster)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1992
Howards End is generally considered the high point of the decades-long collaboration between American-born director James Ivory and Indian-born producer Ismail Merchant, who together produced 27 films that spanned multiple genres and covered much of the globe. When one hears the name “Merchant Ivory,” one’s thoughts usually turn to images of stately, elegant, literary, arty, and, most importantly, historical films, usually of a decidedly British nature. In that sense, Howards End is very much their high point, if only because all of those terms are aptly applied, but always in the best sense. “Stately” can all too often become stuffy, “elegant” can become dull, “literary” can become inert, and “arty” can become pretentious. Howards End is all of the former and none of the latter.
Based on the celebrated 1910 novel by E.M. Forster (whose novels had already provided the source material for Merchant Ivory’s recent films, 1985’s A Room With a View and 1987’s Maurice), Howards End is an emotionally stirring, but thematically incisive drama about the various interconnections among three families in Edwardian England: the wealthy and powerful Wilcoxes, whose patriarch Henry (Anthony Hopkins) made his fortune as the head of the Imperial and West African Rubber Company (the very name evokes the powers and plunders of colonialism); the Schlegels, three siblings led by the eldest sister Margaret (Emma Thompson), a chatty and thoroughly modern woman who appreciates culture and refinement, but without becoming weighed down by it; and finally the Basts, a young couple struggling with sever economic difficulties.
Each family represents a different stratum of the rigid social hierarchy of the day, and for Forster their interactions illustrated how the ideal of different classes mixing was fraught with various dangers. The film is replete with social, political, and economic conflicts, but because they take place within the realm of “polite society,” they rarely break the surface, but rather churn just beneath it. Some of the conflicts are minor, representing various generational differences, such as Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave), Henry’s dying wife whose rekindled friendship with Margaret sets much of the plot in motion, disagreeing with her friend about women’s suffrage. Other conflicts have vast consequences, such as the effect on Leonard Bast (Samuel West) when, following Henry’s off-handed advice, he quits his low-paying job as a clerk thinking that his employer is about to go under and finds himself destitute, as opposed to just poor, as a result. The various characters’ personality traits are also destined to cause various tensions, from the impulsive and passionate tendencies of Margaret’s younger sister Helen (Helena Bonham Carter), who takes the Basts under her wing, to Henry’s cold and distant nature, which makes his eventual marriage to Margaret seem so strange, even as it promises to redeem him.
Much of the story takes place at the titular country cottage, which was passed down to Ruth Wilcox through her family and therefore represents a place that is not defined by Henry’s capitalistic enterprise. A place of simple beauty and respite, it is both a privileged space that only the upper class could afford to maintain (at one point in the film Margaret remarks on how many homes the Wilcoxes have) and an idealized escape from the class-bound hierarchies so evident in London. It is not surprising, then, that control of Howards End becomes a crucial aspect of the film’s thematic terrain, as if the characters innately recognize its symbolic value and therefore feel the need to define it for themselves.
What is particularly impressive about Howards End, which was adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Merchant Ivory’s longtime collaborator (she scripted 21 of their films), is how it maintains so well the issues of its day while keeping them from becoming frozen in time; the story is fundamentally about the social upheavals of England at the turn of the 20th century, but it enthralls today because its characters are so resolutely and recognizably human, rather than literary cut-outs. This is largely due to the outstanding performances by the distinguished cast. Emma Thompson, who won an Oscar for her role, brings a sense of warmth and charm to Margaret, the film’s most crucial character who is best able to bridge the various divides because she respects and represents both emotion and intellect, which gives her a strong contrast with Helena Bonham Carter’s Helen, who is all passion. Anthony Hopkins, who had just won an Oscar the year before for his chilling performance as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), is particularly effective in portraying Henry’s coolness and distance, which makes it all the more affecting late in the film when his character finally breaks and allows others to see the struggling, flawed human inside his flinty armor. It is a role that could have all too easy become rote, but like the rest of the film, it is imbued a deep sense of experience that brings it powerfully to life.
|Howards End Criterion Collection Blu-Ray|
|Audio||English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||November 3, 2009|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Simply gorgeous. The 1080p high-definition transfer of Howards End, which was supervised by cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts and approved by director James Ivory, was taken from the original 35mm interpositive and digitally restored with the MTI DRS system, Pixel Farm’s PFClean System, and Digital Vision’s DVNR system. The first of Merchant Ivory’s films to be shot in the ’Scope aspect ratio, Howards End is a truly sumptuous film, with a wide palette that ranges from the Garden of Eden-like beauty of the titular cottage, to the cool blues and grays of the Schlegel household, to the dark, cramped environs of the Bast flat. Colors are rich and natural throughout, and the high-def image allows for an extraordinary amount of detail, bringing out the tiniest nuances in the image. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel surround soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from the 6-track magnetic soundtrack and digitally restored via ProTools HD and AudioCube’s integrated audio workstation, resulting in a clean, generally robust soundtrack that keeps the dialogue clear and direct while the surrounds are used sparingly to enrich the musical score and various atmospheric sounds.|
|The only new supplement on this Blu-Ray is a new 12-minute video appreciation of the late Ismail Merchant (who passed away in 2005) by director James Ivory. The rest of the supplementary material has been repackaged from the 2005 “Merchant Ivory Collection” DVD, starting with “Building Howards End,” an excellent 43-minute documentary about the film’s production that features interviews with Ivory, Merchant, Helena Bonham Carter, costume designer Jenny Beavan, and production designer Luciana Arrighi. For more about the film’s design, we have “The Design of Howards End,” an 8-minute interview with Arrighi that focuses specifically on the costume and production designs and includes many of her original sketches. “The Wandering Company” is an intriguing and informative 50-minute documentary made in 1984 about the history of Merchant Ivory Productions, which highlights their unique contributions to world cinema. The disc also includes the original theatrical trailer and a 4-minute behind-the-scenes featurette from 1992 that would normally go without much comment, except for one odd peculiarity I noticed: It seems that they sped up the clips to shorten the overall running time, which makes the characters sound like chipmunks.|
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © The Criterion Collection