Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees refuses to sully this fine film with butt jokes. Besides, the last image she wants in her mind is Howard Stern's bottom.
When it was released in 1992, director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant's adaptation of the 1910 E.M. Forster novel Howards End was hailed as a masterpiece. The winner of numerous awards, including a best actress Oscar for Emma Thompson, Howards End is one of the finest examples of the famed Merchant Ivory touch, from its lavish period production values to the sensitivity of its performances. Finally available on DVD, this remarkable film has received a new visual transfer and a substantial array of extras. Most important, though, is that this is a film of lasting power and relevance, truly one of Merchant Ivory's greatest achievements.
Facts of the Case
The Schlegels and the Wilcoxes could hardly be more different. Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson, Love Actually), her impetuous younger sister Helen (Helena Bonham Carter, Wings of the Dove), and their brother Tibby (Adrian Ross Magenty) are modern, intellectual types, who like to discuss politics, art, and literature at lively dinner parties. Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins, Hannibal) and his frail wife Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave, Mrs. Dalloway) live a much more traditional life, and their three grown children are poised to take their places in upper-class society. Ruth Wilcox, however, is a more poetic soul, and she and Margaret form an unlikely friendship after a brief romance between Helen and the younger Wilcox son, Paul, throws the families into renewed acquaintance.
Apart from Ruth, the Wilcoxes are exclusive, believing in the firm separation of classes; the Schlegels, in contrast, are inclusive, embracing anyone they feel a kinship with. One such kindred spirit is Leonard Bast (Samuel West), a struggling young clerk with intellectual yearnings who dreams of something more fulfilling than his impoverished life with his fiancée, Jackie. The Schlegels try to help Bast by passing along business advice from Henry Wilcox, but the result is unfortunate, and impulsive Helen begins to become obsessed with the Basts' situation and who is to blame for it.
Ruth Wilcox's death draws Margaret further into the Wilcoxes' world, since unbeknownst to Margaret, the dying woman left behind instructions that her beloved country home, Howards End, be left to Margaret. Henry Wilcox allows himself to be persuaded by his selfish, snobbish children, Charles (James Wilby, Maurice) and Evie (Jemma Redgrave, The Grid), to ignore his wife's last request, but then he himself develops an interest in Margaret. When he proposes to her, it looks as if the two very different families may have found common ground—but neither Helen nor the younger Wilcoxes are so easily brought around, and the conjunction of the Wilcoxes, the Schlegels, and the Basts sets in motion a chain of events leading to heartbreaking revelations and a tragic confrontation at Howards End.
The book-versus-film debate is one that is likely to continue as long as film adaptations of beloved books are made. Often, as a book lover, I find myself coming down on the side of the novel and wishing that the film adaptation hewed more closely to it; much more rarely, I am pleasantly surprised by a film that actually creates a more satisfying experience than its parent book. Howards End splits the verdict. Even at almost two and a half hours, the film can't hope to cover everything E.M. Forster's novel tells us—especially about the characters' unspoken feelings—and for that reason it's a film we can appreciate more if we've read the novel upon which it's based. At the same time, however, it distills and clarifies some of the novel's implications, so that it actually enhanced my understanding of the novel: I felt that I had a much better idea of what Forster was getting at after having seen the film. It's an unusual example of an adaptation that doesn't reduce its parent work but enhances it, and that is one of many ways Howards End is a remarkable film.
Even the inevitable changes to the book carry the weight of logic. When I first saw the film during its original theatrical release, I chafed at the way the filmmakers had sexed up the material in, I cynically assumed, an attempt to heighten the film's appeal to younger theatergoers. Now I realize I did Ivory a disservice. When we see Helen Schlegel and Paul Wilcox in a make-out session at the start of the film, it isn't gratuitous, as I once thought: It's establishing Helen as both a passionate and an impulsive character, both of which qualities are crucial to the unfolding of her story. Similarly, when Margaret gives Henry Wilcox a kiss when accepting his proposal, even though she doesn't do this in the book, it reveals a lot about Margaret's capacity for warmth and emotional expression—and how they contrast with her future husband's stiff propriety. Overall, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's excellent screenplay (which won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay) displays extraordinary fidelity to the novel, even down to the presence in one sequence of a bandage on Margaret's hand, which readers of the novel will recognize as having resulted from an intervening scene (which was filmed but, sadly, cut from the completed film).
One of the most wonderful surprises about coming back to this film after not having seen it in many years is its humor. Its emotional power and dramatic tension had lingered in my memory; what I had forgotten was its witty dialogue and deft timing, qualities that make it clear that this work is kin to A Room with a View. Indeed, Howards End starts off much like that kind of romantic comedy of manners, with the Schlegels' aunt Juley bustling off to Howards End and creating comical disruption upon hearing of Helen's "engagement." Even many of the darker dramatic scenes have moments of black humor. This balance of tones ensures that, while it has elements of tragedy and heartbreak, Howards End is not a punishing emotional experience.
Another memory of the film that stayed with me was the extraordinarily handsome production design; the film's lavish re-creation of the Edwardian age no doubt stands out to many viewers, since this kind of visual opulence has come to be strongly associated with Merchant Ivory. Indeed, in many quarters it is, paradoxically, treated as a liability: Some moviegoers seem unable to see through the production values to the heartbeat beneath and dismiss Merchant Ivory films as being all about looking pretty. But the thoroughness with which films like Howards End create the world of the characters is crucial to our understanding of who they are. Just as A Room with a View and Maurice evoked the rigidity of the Edwardian social sphere, against which the protagonists had to struggle, through the painstaking evocation of the physical surroundings and clothing of the era, Howards End helps us understand the characters through their settings and costumes. The most prominent example is Howards End itself, a place that seems mellow with age, an organic part of the landscape and a haven for sensitive souls like Mrs. Wilcox and Margaret; but we also learn almost everything we need to know about Leonard Bast by seeing him first in the tawdry, shabby flat he shares with Jackie and then in the field of bluebells that fills his imagination. Likewise, the slightly bohemian flavor of the Schlegel girls' clothes—Margaret's tailored shirts and neckties, the exotic burnoose Helen wears to a party—together with their unusually light and airy house signal their modern, free-thinking approach to life. This kind of attention to detail is all the more remarkable when one realizes that the total cost of the film was a mere $8 million, and this luxuriant visual display was all achieved on a low budget.
The performances here are all outstanding, but it makes sense to single out Emma Thompson's Oscar-winning one for special attention. Margaret is the most complex character in the film as well as the most sympathetic, and Thompson makes her convincingly, wonderfully real from start to finish. Margaret's compassion, intelligence, humor, and insight make her the character who gives us the most hope for the future of a country that seems stratified by class lines and economic inequity. When Henry warns her against Bast's "type," she corrects him with gentle certainty: "He isn't a type; he's a person." While helping Henry bloom into a warmer, more tolerant man, she also tries to instill a sense of responsibility in her younger siblings. In the development of the film's theme of personal accountability for social and economic inequities, it's Margaret who finds the realistic middle ground between admitting no responsibility (like Henry) and illogically seizing total responsibility (like Helen). In this respect, as in many others, she provides the vital connection between the opposing stances represented by the different families. Vibrantly embodied by Thompson, Margaret is the heart of the film—as well as its conscience.
Under Ivory's perceptive direction, the rest of this excellent cast turns in performances that never strike a wrong note. If on rare occasions some of the characters seem a tiny bit mannered, I think that can be attributed to the greater formality of the Edwardian era and its speech patterns. Anthony Hopkins has the difficult job of making Henry Wilcox, the rigid bastion of upper-class tradition, into someone who can not only love Margaret but be loved by her. The sometimes painful changes his character undergoes are subtly but powerfully presented in Hopkins's performance. He and Thompson work so well together that it's not surprising that Merchant Ivory teamed them again for 1993's The Remains of the Day. Helena Bonham Carter is excellent as she takes her character from a free-spirited girl to the mad-eyed zealot who has lost all sense of proportion. Samuel West gives Leonard Bast a restrained intensity and a hunched, hopeless posture that make this character moving without descending into sentimentality. Vanessa Redgrave is an ethereal presence as Ruth Wilcox, and James Wilby is chillingly perfect as Charles Wilcox, a priggish bully who has inherited all his father's worst qualities and none of his good ones. Prunella Scales (Fawlty Towers) is a delightfully addled Aunt Juley, and Susie Lindeman, as Charles Wilcox's ditzy wife Dolly, is a reliable source of humor.
The new transfer boasted by this DVD, drawn from the original 35 mm interpositive, simply glows. The subtleties of the color palette, and the fidelity with which it is presented, are all the more evident when we compare this transfer to the included original trailer, in which the color is garish yet flat. Even the opening twilight scenes feature admirable depth of detail and clarity. I saw only fleeting instances of grain, and minor speckling in exactly one scene; otherwise the visual experience here is superb, and we are able to fully lose ourselves in the glorious Oscar-nominated cinematography of Tony Pierce-Roberts. The 5.1 surround mix envelopes us effectively in the lifelike sounds of Edwardian England, from the London street noises to the sounds of the countryside, yet rightly prioritizes dialogue, which emerges with great naturalness and clarity. The audio track also delivers Harold Robbins's evocative musical score, as well as compositions like Beethoven's 5th symphony and Percy Grainger's "Bridal Lullaby," as dynamically and powerfully as if one were hearing them in a symphony hall. In one scene audio drops out entirely for an instant, but that is the only cavil I have with it. This is a splendid audiovisual experience.
Among the extras, by far the best is the new 42-minute featurette, "Building Howards End," which features new interviews with Merchant, Ivory, Bonham Carter, and two members of the design team. It discusses the project from the time the idea first came to the filmmakers, through pre-production (dogged by the difficulty of securing financing), to the catastrophic bankruptcy of the film company slated for the American release. This is an absorbing documentary, offering both insight into the themes the filmmakers were trying to convey and some enjoyable personality contrast between outspoken Ismail Merchant and easygoing James Ivory. Especially since the original 1992 featurette on the film is a slender trifle clocking in at under 5 minutes, this documentary is a valuable addition to the disc. The 1992 featurette does include some sound bytes from Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, which add value, but it loses credibility by presenting the movie clips at too high a speed, so all the actors' voices are pitched too high—an unintentionally comical effect.
The 10-minute featurette "The Design of Howards End" features Jenny Beavan, who designed the costumes with John Bright, and Oscar-winning production designer Luciana Arrighi. Arrighi offers an interesting and fairly comprehensive look at her design process for the film, including a series of watercolor sketches that show the different atmospheres she wished to convey, but Beavan restricts herself to generalities and doesn't discuss what she intended particular costumes to reveal about their wearers. Consequently, the featurette is more rewarding for those interested in production design than in the costumes.
The inclusion of the 50-minute 1984 documentary The Wandering Company is somewhat odd, since it covers only the first 20 years of Merchant Ivory productions. The 1985 release of their breakout success A Room with a View, the first of their E.M. Forster adaptations, would take the partnership in a new direction and change the way the world received them, so the material here seems of slight relevance to Howards End. In itself it is of intermittent interest, sometimes dragged down by too-long film clips, but it will be illuminating for viewers who know the duo only from their most recent work. The case insert features, among other useful material, notes on the film by Robert Emmet Long, which are perceptive and illuminating; Long has contributed other such helpful text commentaries to other recent DVD releases in the HVE Merchant Ivory Collection.
Howards End is, above all, a rich film: rich in emotion, rich in visual and aural splendor, and rich in ideas. I've only flicked the surface of the film's wealth in this respect: One could easily spend days discussing the characters, the symbolism, and the film's exploration of such themes as money, class, philanthropy, nature, ambition, love, parenthood, tradition, intellectualism, and the very nature of Englishness. Both for that reason and others it's a film that only gains in appeal on further acquaintance. For those who think and for those who feel, Howards End is a deeply rewarding experience.
All parties are acquitted…but the justice herself wouldn't mind being placed under house arrest at Howards End.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• "Building Howards End" New Making-of Featurette
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