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1992's "Howards End" marked the third Merchant Ivory production of an E.M. Forster novel, following "A Room with a View" and "Maurice." Nominated for nine Academy Awards, "Howards End" would wind up bringing home Best Actress (for Emma Thompson), Best Adapted Screenplay (Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's second for a Merchant Ivory production), and Best Art Direction. With a runtime of nearly two-and-a-half hours, "Howards End" is the rare quiet character drama that feels like it runs half that amount. The production assembles an accomplished cast, including Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter, and Prunella Scales, to name a few highlights. Set in the early 1900s, "Howards End" is a classic Forster tale of social classes mixing against type and the personal ramifications that result. Approaching its 25th anniversary in 2017, "Howards End" sees its second Blu-Ray release, replacing a now out-of-print Criterion release, but coming equipped with a stunning new 4K sourced transfer from a 2016 restoration of the film. Like the timeless tale itself, "Howards End" is a vibrant film that still remains emotionally relevant to this day.
Like all good tales of social standing and clashes of class, "Howards End" begins with a romance, although one fleeting enough to last an opening scene, but vital enough to set an important tone throughout the film. Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham Carter) and Paul Wilcox (Joseph Bennett) find themselves in a passionate embrace leading to a hastily cancelled engagement that sets up a sense of bad blood between the Schlegels and Wilcoxes briefly rekindled when the Wilcoxes lease a home near Helen and her older sister Margaret (Thompson). The dying matriarch of the Wilcox clan, Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave), determined to quash seemingly meaningless ill-will strikes up a fast and dear friendship with Margaret that culminates in Ruth's death and legally non-binding last request to bequeath her family estate, the titular Howards End to Margaret and her family.
In any other story, such a plot could carry a two-hour runtime, but "Howards End" is no mere jaunt in the park; it's a rich character study and dramatic saga, that uses its first act to set-up the remainder of the story for a seasoned look at cross-class interactions (via the Schlegel's sisters' friendship with working class Leonard Bast) and unexpected romance from all corners. On an initial viewing, "Howards End" can be a dense and minorly labyrinthine tale; motivations of main characters save for Margaret are often uncertain and it is often difficult to emotionally attach to the story when the outcome is impossible to predict. On subsequent viewings, the beauty, frustration, and tragedy of the interactions between the Schlegel, Wilcox, and Bast families are hopelessly captivating and the end outcome makes for an eternally melancholy viewing experience.
Nearly three decades later, "Howards End" remains a triumph in filmmaking, from the award winning production design that makes Edwardian England come alive and crackle with realism that nowadays might be slyly recreated via CGI, to the absolutely stellar cast. "Howards End" is a masterclass in the understated performance and Emma Thompson's lead role as Margaret is still a delight to watch; Thompson brings a sense of honesty and realism to the screen, and remains an emotional lynchpin over the course of a story that shifts tone and direction frequently. Helena Bonham Carter turns in a believable performance of a young woman jilted by former failed relationships and unsure future possibilities on the horizon will pan out any more successfully. Anthony Hopkins gives a vintage performance that only Hopkins is capable of; there's no winking sense of irony to be had here that Hopkins often falls into the trap of for his more commercial Hollywood offerings, his Willcox patriarch is a man of esteem and he commands respect from those around him while never having to offer an outwardly imposing physical presence. Additional praise goes to Vanessa Redgrave as the tragic Ruth and Samuel West in an absolutely stellar sophomore performance holding the working-class aesthetic of the film together with dignity and believability.
While many period pieces don't age well, "Howards End" is the definite exception to the rule. It feels as fresh as it did many years prior and there are no cracks to be seen in this Merchant Ivory production, that is arguably the finest offering amidst an astonishing body of work. The new 4K sourced transfer is an absolute delight and allows "Howards End" to be seen as it was intended to be seen: through crisp clear eyes that make the world around this cast of fascinating tragic characters feel real and lived in. Sadly, despite all the social advances over the decades, many of the class distinctions that exist in the world of "Howards End" still have vague, if not overt remnants in our modern society: money and social standing still separate and divide the masses, but at the end of the day, emotion and love are universal constants that can unite or further divide at the drop of a hat for those who wield them carelessly.
The 1.78:1 1080p transfer is a revelation. Having only viewed the film on its original non-Criterion DVD release, I was blown away throughout the course of the movie just how vibrant this new 4K sourced restoration actually was. Original film grain, minimal as it may be, is natural and mood enhancing, while fine detail is crisp, natural, and devoid of any obnoxious and detrimental digital tinkering. Color reproduction is natural in both exterior and interior shots with the film having an overall slightly muted color palette. Contrast levels are consistent from start to finish with the more natural lighting of the film reproduced accurately. Although I never was able to check out the Criterion Blu-Ray, I would safely say this new 4K restoration is at least as good as that transfer if not outwardly better. To make a long story short, this release of "Howards End" doesn't look look nearly 25-years old.
The English DTS-HD Master Audio track is a well more than serviceable offering for a dialogue rich and generally quiet character piece. Effects, dialogue and score are finely balanced with not a single element sounding muted nor tinny; it's an overall warm aural affair that creates a sense of atmosphere in the often close quarters that the story finds itself unfolding in. The audio is so crisp, that in a few scenes where ADR was obviously used, the effect is quite prominent to the point of minor distraction. A lossy English 5.1 track is included as well as English SDH subtitles.
The bonus features of this new edition of "Howards End" are spread across two discs with the movie itself featuring only a commentary track by a pair of film historians. The second disc offers recent interviews with James Ivory and Vanessa Redgrave, as well as an interview with Ivory and the film curator of the MOMA; also included is 2016 Q&A shot at a live event, a handful of making-of featurettes, and trailer gallery. Housed inside the slip sleeve that the case comes in, is a small booklet with press stills and some short essays on the film itself. The extras from the Criterion release have not been licensed, so Merchant Ivory fans who still have that release may want to hold onto it solely for that reason.
While a few key bonus features from the Criterion release don't return for this new edition of "Howards End" on Blu-Ray, the new 4K sourced restored transfer is reason alone to own this disc. "Howards End" remains a timeless story and absolutely fantastic piece of filmmaking; it's the all-star in the Merchant Ivory catalog and a reminder of exactly how dignified and still human an ensemble cast can be when working with period pieces. A beautiful, thoughtful, and often sad film, "Howards End" is done all the justice it deserves with this new Blu-Ray. DVD Talk Collectors Series.