Watching Howards End
is the cinematic equivalent of eating a heavy slice of some magical
hybrid dessert - say, tiramisu ice cream pie. It's so delicious
and richly layered that it's impossible to enjoy all at once.
Multiple viewings are required in order to fully absorb all the ingredients
of this masterful movie: the intricate story and screenplay, the characters,
the lush production design, the music, and the harmonious conducting
of the lot by director James Ivory. True to the source book by
E.M. Forster, Howards End is a densely-packed novel on film,
consistently driven by detailed character dynamics, which, in turn,
are rooted in a very British social hierarchy and the tangled garden
of emotional responses that grow from it.
Films committed to the great
storytelling traditions of English literature are increasingly rare,
and with Merchant-Ivory Productions fading away (Ismail Merchant died
in 2005), it's bone-chilling to think that novelistic character-oriented
drama may be under threat of extinction. To quell such concerns,
the Criterion Collection has re-issued Howards End, improving
upon the previous DVD on the Home Vision brand, with updated bonus content.
The Schlegel sisters, Margaret
(Emma Thompson) and Helen (Helena Bonham-Carter), pride themselves on
being ahead of their time. They preside over a Bloomsbury-like
group of leftist intellectuals, with Helen being of the more radical
stripe, and Margaret, thoughtful and bright though she is, empathizing
with a more traditional viewpoint. When the Schlegel girls cross
paths with the wealthy Wilcoxes, Henry (Anthony Hopkins) and Ruth (Vanessa
Redgrave), the results are mixed. Their son Paul (Joseph Bennett)
rejects Helen after a brief tryst, but Margaret subsequently grows very
close to Ruth. When the older woman dies, one of her last wishes is
for Margaret to inherit her family home, Howards End. Margaret,
however, knows nothing of this, and is kept in the dark by the family,
who refuse to inform her of the bequest.
Meanwhile, Helen has taken
up the cause of a working class couple, the Basts. Leonard (Samuel
West) is a clerk with intellectual pretensions; his wife Jacky (Nicola
Duffett) looks like a cheap tart and is, in fact, a former prostitute.
On Leonard's (unwitting) behalf, Helen asks Henry Wilcox for professional
advice; he suggests that Leonard leave his firm, as it is financially
unstable. This turns out not to be the case, and Leonard is left
jobless. Henry proposes marriage to Margaret, and their union
seems happy at first, but class divisions eventually drive multiple
wedges between and among members of the three families - the Wilcoxes,
the Schlegels, and the Basts. Revelations of various kinds compound
the social anxieties caused by such unorthodox cross-pollination of
the classes, and reveal the hypocrisy underlying the standards set by
the ruling class.
With a film this satisfying,
it's tough to know where to begin assigning the superlatives.
Ruth Prawer-Jhabvala's Oscar-winning screenplay layers character development,
situational tension, and broader thematic material with a level of care
that belies the organic effortlessness of the finished film. Dialogue
maintains the sound of a past era, without seeming quaint or self-conscious
in the mouths of the contemporary actors. Despite Forster's
interest in class, the screenplay (like the novel) remains firmly grounded
in its characters - there are no monolithic constructivist attempts
to portray "society" as capable of acting of its own accord, either
with or against our characters. All of them - Wilcoxes, Schlegels,
and Basts - are individuals who move within particular social strata,
but they are not "types," nor are they vessels for an authorial
voice or viewpoint. This, more than anything else, is what makes
such characters compelling and memorable - their perceived ability
to make choices and decisions independently of their author.
The actors' work in Howards
End has been almost universally lauded, and I'm not about to break
that trend. In an Oscar- and BAFTA-winning turn, Emma Thompson's
Margaret is a very intelligent woman who sees both sides of most issues
yet remains committed to a highly defined personal integrity.
As Helen, the more impulsive and radical of the sisters, Bonham-Carter
lends a flighty unpredictability and a staunch refusal to abide what
she views as arbitrary social norms. It's rather shocking that
Anthony Hopkins was not nominated for an Academy Award here; he's
in fine form as the abrupt, clipped, and somewhat humorless Henry, as
tightly wound as the timepieces with which British industrialists were
so often obsessed. What's even more shocking is that Vanessa
Redgrave, as Ruth, lost the Supporting Actress Oscar to Marisa Tomei
Not to knock Tomei's considerable talent, but Redgrave's performance
here is uncommonly heartfelt and totally endearing. As the dying
Ruth, she emits a radiant love for her house at Howards End, lighting
up whenever she has a chance to talk about it. (Redgrave's loss
in 1993 may come as no surprise in light of the fuss created by her
acceptance speech following her 1977 Supporting Actress win for Julia.)
James Ivory's direction has
always been pretty affectless, and I mean that as a compliment; he has
tended to focus on the actors and the technical crew without imposing
an enormous stylistic ego. There are no extravagant directorial
flourishes, only smart storytelling devices and a lush, fluid narrative
flow. The story is patiently layered, introducing us to each group
of characters with measured efficiency. Howards End takes
its time, but maintains our focus with unwavering forward momentum and
the fascinating interplay of its characters, whose dynamics continually
evolve from start to finish.
The enhanced 2.35:1 transfer of this lovingly photographed film
(by regular Merchant Ivory associate Tony Pierce-Roberts) is outstanding.
This is a period film that utilizes color boldly, with conviction and
purpose. From the opening shot of Ruth's royal blue dress trailing
across deep green grass at twilight, to the crimson and brown interiors
of the Basts' flat, the production design and photography eschew the
filtered, hazy look of so many other period films. The transfer
captures all of this with an appropriate level of saturation and excellent
contrast. It's Criterion; I have yet to see a cinematographer-supervised,
director-approved transfer that doesn't look brilliant.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix has a rich dynamic range, with
dialogue that sounds heavy with natural tones. The musical score
by Richard Robbins has an eclectic, engaging sound, drawing as it does
from both Beethoven and Percy Grainger. Ambient effects are plentiful.
On the whole, this is a subtle track that never draws our attention
away from the characters or visuals, which are the film's key assets.
Disc One contains the original Theatrical Trailer (2:05).
Although this release sadly lacks a commentary track, the second disc
contains a handful of really interesting bonuses. Disc Two starts
off with Building Howards End (42:34), which mostly consists
of a wonderful two-handed interview with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory,
who reveal the background to the film's production. The Design
of Howards End (8:56) delves into the production design and
costumes of the film. The Wandering Company (49:35) is
a 1984 documentary that traces the development of Merchant Ivory Productions,
one of the most important film production companies of the second half
of the twentieth century. James Ivory on Ismail Merchant, 2009
(12:11) features the director reminiscing about his late friend and
filmmaking partner. Behind the
Scenes (4:31) is the film's original 1992 EPK.
The Criterion Collection has done cinema yet another invaluable service,
presenting one of the best films of the 1990s in an impeccable package
with edifying and memorable bonus content. Three cheers for
Howards End, its brilliant actors, and its flawless production team. Due to the fact that there's only one new bonus feature here (the James Ivory interview), owners of the previous Home Vision release can safely skip this one. For everyone else, this title belongs in the DVD Talk Collectors Series.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.