Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
One of Merchant Ivory's biggest successes, Howards End is a near-flawless production of
a complex novel about the separation of classes in England in the first decade of the twentieth
century. Along with
A Passage to India, it might
be called The Curse of English Priggishness if it weren't so scrupulously fair to almost
all of its characters. Stories like this tend to look to the younger generation for enlightenment,
but in Howard's End young people are the worst prigs as well as the most foolish liberals.
Howard's End is a more taxing experience than Merchant Ivory's
A Room With A View but
even more rewarding; it's like a really good book with vivid, perfectly-imagined
Outgoing Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson) lives in London and becomes fast
friends with the ill Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave), whom she met on a German vacation. They
easily surmount a social gaffe from the summer before, a brief engagement of Margaret's impulsive sister
Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) to a Wilcox son. The
Wilcoxes are a successful business family thanks to the stewardship of the industrious
but closed-minded Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins). When Ruth dies her relatives are horrified
to find a piece of paper willing her ancestral home to her new friend Margaret, and they quickly
destroy it. Helen involves herself in helping a downtrodden clerk, Leonard Bast (Samuel West). She
solicits unfortunate advice from Henry that causes Bast to lose his job. All of this happens
while the decent but resolutely intolerant Henry Wilcox makes plans to wed Margaret. It takes a
lot of unnecessary suffering but Ruth's destroyed will is eventually honored, in an ironic
and roundabout way.
Families are collections of people that often work against their own best interests. If Howards
End were a modern miniseries it would simply be about a lot of greedy relatives struggling for
possession of a choice piece of real estate, the Howards End of the title. E.M. Forster's novel,
adabpted with typical excellence by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, gives us a complex web of characters in
a particular social situation.
The adorable Margaret Schlegel openly admits that she probably talks too much. She's practical and
open to change, and the possibility of an advantageous marriage outweighs the fact that as much as
she admires the gentlemanly Henry Wilcox, getting along with him is going to be a struggle.
Henry is polite and fair in his own way - he presents his wife's last-minute will before his family
in a neutral tone and we can see the disappointment on his face when his sons immediately declare
it a fake, even though he certainly doesn't want to honor it either. Henry can be imperious with
his kin and is apt to become obstinate and unreasonable under pressure, and his engagement to Margaret
has a lot of stressful moments.
The movie is uncommonly kind to some of its characters. Some might consider Vanessa Redgrave's sickly
Ruth might be considered a spoiled businessman's wife but her character is almost angelic. Her children
are inconsiderate brats overly concerned with their inheritances. The main son seems to be warped by
his father's domination and itches to exercise his privileges over others.
But Margaret's headstrong sister Helen is little better. She initially connects with the poor Leonard
Bast over a common interest in music and literature, and sees him as a sort of civic improvement
project. Although we know him to be the kind of dreamer unlikely to excel in his work, in her eyes Bast
is deserving and she (with some cause) eventually decides that his entire situation is the result of
bad faith on the part of Henry Wilcox. She makes scenes and causes unnecessary trouble almost as a
rebuff to Henry's self-serving philosophy that the poor are better left to fend for themselves.
The story so intertwines the fates and faults of the Wilcoxes, Schlegels and Basts that it is
difficult to see who exactly is responsible for the tragedies that result. The unfolding of events
is as absorbing as drama gets, and every seeming coincidence of plotting is in fact sustained by
logical cause and effect. The interesting state of affairs at the end has an affinity with the
unpredictable outcomes in real life - who survives and who perishes, and what becomes of the proud and
It's hard to overpraise the acting here. Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Hopkins (fresh from
The Silence of the Lambs) are all fascinating to watch. Helena Bonham Carter is as frustratingly
meddlesome here as she is adorable in The Room With A View. Samuel West plays the starving clerk
without straining for sympathy, and as his wife Jacky, Nicola Duffett does well in a problem
role. The actors playing Hopkins' immediate heirs have perhaps the hardest job of all. The sons and wives
are a hateful pack of snooty ingrates obsessed with inherited wealth. Some of them squirm uncomfortably
under Henry's domination, yet none are simple villains.
Howards End sorts them all out in a satisfying way. Forster's indictment of English attitudes
does not extend to his picture of English justice. Being the heir of a millionaire doesn't spare
a character the consequences of an unintended killing.
The Merchant Ivory Collection's two-disc DVD set of Howards End is as impeccably presented
as the line's other titles. Marc Walkow of Criterion supervised the production of the collection
to the high standards we associate with Criterion product. The soundtrack has undergone a new
Dolby 5.1 mix that brings out the riches of Richard Robbins' score. This is one of Merchant Ivory's
best-looking films; in some cities it was originally released in 70mm.
The second disc contains two major docus, Building Howards End and The Design of Howards
End. Ismael Merchant and James Ivory's interview pieces are now so comfortable that we enjoy
their rapport and the occasional odd sly comment. The only cast
member to participate is Helena Bonham Carter but costume designer Jenny Beavan and production
designer Luciana Arrighi appear as well. The second docu has more input from Arrighi, who shared an
Oscar win for her production design with Ian Whittaker. The film was nominated 9 times and won in two
more categories, for Jhabvala's script adaptation and Emma Thompson's acting. The film was abundantly
honored at other awards ceremonies; Thompson won the Golden Globe as well.
I think I recognize a third docu, on the history of Merchant Ivory until 1984, from an earlier
title in the collection. There's also a behind the scenes featurette from the film's original release.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Howards End rates:
Supplements: Making-of Docus Building Howards End, The Design of Howards End;
The Wandering Company, a 1984 documentary about the history of Merchant Ivory Productions;
Original 1992 behind-the-scenes featurette
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 8, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson