Be on your guard, rich people. Judge Clark Douglas is going to try to sneak into your party.
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"Will you forgive her as you yourself have been forgiven…you have had a mistress; I forgave you. My sister has a lover; you drive her from the house. Why can you not be honest for once in your life? Why can't you say what Helen has done, I have done!"
Facts of the Case
Margaret (Emma Thompson, Nanny McPhee) and Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham Carter, Big Fish) are moderately well-to-do sisters living in early 20th century England. Once upon a time, Helen was engaged to be married to a young man named Paul Wilcox (Joseph Bennett, Swing Kids), but the relationship ended badly. Nevertheless, the Schlegels continue to encounter the wealthy Wilcox family over the years, and Margaret finds herself growing close to Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave, Venus), the aging family matriarch. When Ruth passes away, she scribbles a note on a piece of paper indicating that she wants Margaret to have Howards End, the lovely property that has been in Ruth's family for ages. Patriarch Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs) and his children determine that the note is not legally binding and was written when Ruth was of unsound mind, so they toss it in the fire.
Margaret knows nothing of this, and she continues to run into various members of the Wilcox family (particularly Henry) from time to time. One day, Henry awkwardly presents Margaret with something resembling a marriage proposal. Margaret is immensely surprised, but she agrees. However, Helen is very angry when she hears the news. You see, Helen and Margaret are friends with a man named Leonard Bast (Samuel West, Jane Eyre), who was fired from his job due to a bad piece of advice given to him by Henry via Helen and Margaret. Helen asks Henry if he would be willing to help poor Leonard find another job, but Henry says no: "The poor are the poor and one's sorry for them—but there it is." As time proceeds, the lives of Henry, Margaret, Helen, Leonard, and others connect and conflict in surprising and emotionally challenging ways.
The films of Merchant-Ivory are often unfairly stereotyped as being reserved, mannered, dry experiences. That isn't really true. Sure, the famous producer-director team isn't exactly known for presenting Michael Bay-style blood and thunder, but underneath the cool, crisp surface of their films is generally a deep well of emotion held in check not by directorial prudence but by the restrictions of the setting and era in which the characters are living. That's most assuredly the case in Howards End, based on the much-acclaimed novel by E.M. Forster. There is such a tremendous depth of feeling in this film, made all the more potent by the fact that it is usually bottled. As such, the moments of explicit emotion have a raw power that makes everyone else in the film immensely uncomfortable. Why are they actually saying the things that they feel, and why are they saying them at such a horrific volume?
The cinematic version of Howards End dispenses with the notion that the characters in the book are nothing more than symbolic elements of social issues Forster wanted to address. Some have analyzed the book and claimed that its only weakness is that the characters aren't well-developed as real human beings because the primary purpose is to represent something else. That certainly isn't the case in the film, which offers very nuanced and thoroughly convincing character portraits from top to bottom. The class struggle between the wealthy and the poor is still very much an essential part of the story, but that battle springs naturally out of the characters.
At the most passionate end of the spectrum is Helen, who would undoubtedly be waving signs and participating in marches if she were living in the modern era. She and Margaret were always fairly progressive individuals, but after Helen witnesses Leonard's personal downfall she becomes intensely proactive. There is no question in her mind as to who is responsible. Who are the rich to go around giving advice to the poor that may or may not be sound? If a rich person does something that causes a poor person problems, the rich person should be responsible because he is rich. At the opposite end of that same spectrum is Henry's son Charles (James Wilby, Maurice), an insufferably snobbish and mean-spirited chap with no regard for anyone of low standing. Consider the look of outrage and disgust on Charles's face when he sees Leonard's ungainly wife Jackie (Nicola Duffett, Spider) eating cake and drinking wine at a wedding reception. As far as he is concerned, the poor are inferior human beings in every regard.
Meanwhile, Henry and Margaret find themselves torn on different sides of the middle. The performances of Hopkins and Thompson are undoubtedly the best in the film, and their complex portrayals are richly involving. Thompson deservedly won an Academy Award for her turn as Margaret, whose liberal leanings must be tempered with her regard for her husband. "I have to be on his side now," Margaret sheepishly informs her bitter sister. Thompson has given her share of great performances, but this is certainly one of her best. Watching her move from unashamedly joyous to pleasantly compromised to defeated is a rather devastating journey, as Thompson sells it with an understated reality that's immensely effective. Meanwhile, Hopkins plays a man who is not fundamentally kind or understanding, but who wants to be for the sake of his wife. He is masterful in the scene in which his wife confronts him with a secret from his past, initially storming off in a childish rage and then attempting to admit that, yes, he actually is a flawed human being. This is not a man who is used to admitting such things; but his love for his wife is so considerable that he is willing to at least try reconnecting with his feelings (even if his business-like tendencies will win out more often than not).
The Blu-ray transfer is decent, but falls short of being really exceptional. I was looking forward to witnessing this gorgeous period film in all of its 1080p glory, but truthfully it's a bit weak as far as transfer go for a film made as recently as the 1990s. There are occasional scratches and flecks, but most problematic is the grain. Now, bear in mind that I have absolutely no problem with natural grain if that means that things like DNR are being left out of the process. Indeed, Howards End does look natural, but the grain becomes so excessive at times that it becomes distracting. Audio is stellar, if rather low-key and understated most of the time. You may want to put the volume at a somewhat low level as the film starts, as Richard Robbins kicks off the film with a very loud blast of the music that the soundtrack never really approaches again. Odd, to say the least.
The vast majority of the supplements are ported over from the previous DVD release. The most substantial feature is probably the 42-minute documentary "Building Howards End," which offers interviews with the primary members of the cast and crew (sans Emma Thompson, sadly) and is a generally revealing and engaging piece. Also substantial is "The Wandering Company," a 49-minute piece on the history of Merchant-Ivory. However, it was produced in 1984, so it obviously only covers the early years. "The Designs of Howards End" (10 minutes) is a decent little piece on the production design, and you also get a theatrical trailer and a 4-minute EPK-style piece from the time of the film's release. The only new item is a 12-minute interview with James Ivory, who offers his memories of the late Ishmael Merchant.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This isn't a complaint about the film, but I would challenge the packaging's claim that this is the "pinnacle" of Merchant-Ivory films. It's excellent (and it's certainly the most acclaimed in terms of awards), but I would contend that The Remains of the Day is the definitive high point of Merchant and Ivory (and perhaps even Hopkins and Thompson).
Howards End is an involving and rewarding literary adaptation that deserves to be in your collection. While the Blu-ray release doesn't offer tremendous incentive to upgrade, I recommend it nonetheless.
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