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Howards End

Howards End
HVe-Merchant Ivory
1992 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 142 min. / Street Date February 15, 2005 / 29.95
Starring Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter, Samuel West
Cinematography Tony Pierce-Roberts
Production Designer Luciana Arrighi
Art Direction John Ralph
Film Editor Andrew Marcus
Original Music Richard Robbins
Written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from the novel by E.M. Forster
Produced by Ismail Merchant
Directed by James Ivory

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 characters.


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 the humble.

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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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

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