Appellate Judge James A. Stewart didn't see Howards start.
"You've never seen Howards End. I want to show it to you."
I've never seen the movie verision of E.M. Forster's Howards End, so I let the Criterion folks show it to me. In case you haven't seen it, either, it's a period epic from Merchant Ivory, the production team known for making period epics. What you might not know, and the features in Howards End: Criterion Collection will tell you, is that Merchant Ivory didn't spring out of nowhere making indie period epics. The company's history dates back to the '60s when it first gained attention with films made in India, such as The Householders and Shakespeare-Wallah. In this collection, you'll get a good look at the development of the team of producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, as well as a look at one of their most popular films.
Facts of the Case
Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham Carter, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) and Paul Wilcox (Joseph Bennett, Swing Kids) have a moment, but that's all that it is. If only Helen hadn't written to sister Meg (Emma Thompson, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), prompting a visit by Aunt Juley (Prunella Scales, Fawlty Towers) to Howards End, the Wilcox family estate.
Later, the Wilcoxes move in opposite the Schlegels. Helen heads off to Germany to avoid her ex-flame while his family is in London, but Meg pays a social call and becomes fast friends with matriarch Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave, Mrs. Dalloway), who is dying. One of Ruth's last acts is to write a note leaving Howards End to Meg. The Wilcoxes destroy the note, but Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs) has fallen for Meg, so she may still end up living at Howards End.
Meanwhile, Helen has taken on a protege in poor clerk Leonard Bast (Samuel West, Jane Eyre), a kindness that will have unkind repercussions.
Howards End is a beautiful period piece with an enchanting musical score. Even if it offered nothing else, it would probably attract some fans. Beyond that, director James Ivory has an entertaining light touch with moments such as Aunt Juley's drive to Howards End with Charles Wilcox, a strong cast gives the often melodramatic story its grounding in human emotion, and the dialogue is often brilliant.
As a melodrama with epic sweep, Howard's End has a tendency to move both slowly and quickly at the same time. Slowly because it is, at its heart, a melodrama with extra suds, and quickly because it crams in a lot of plot points from an epic novel. Thus, the impact of events such as Bast's misfortunes, Helen's troubled marriage, or even the opening flareup at Howards End is less than it could have been, despite expert direction and that strong cast. While Meg is guided by a conciliatory, gentle nature, her actions, in fast-forward, often seem as random as those of her more headstrong sister Helen. A sexual liaison introduced late in the picture just seems inexplicable, as do the results. That's inevitable, I suppose—a film that captured everything would have been unwieldy—but since I haven't read the novel, some things just didn't resonate.
The transfer is excellent. The beauty of Howards End and its flower-filled grounds, as well as the finely detailed sets and locations, comes across well, as does the lilting classical score. You'll probably be impressed, but in case you aren't, the essay booklet includes a description of the steps taken to clean up the picture and sound.
The glimpse into Merchant Ivory's history, mainly through The Wandering Company, a 49-minute documentary made in 1984, may be more interesting than the movie itself, especially if you like indie filmmaking. It shows plenty of clips from the company's early years and features interviews with Felicity Kendal, the British sitcom star who appeared in Merchant Ivory's 1965 Shakespeare-Wallah, and Christopher Reeve, who starred in Merchant Ivory's The Bostonians, as well as the filmmakers. What it shows is that Merchant Ivory had a long and varied filmography. It also hints that other time periods, a sense of place, and culture and manners were always ideas that were present in Merchant Ivory films. Wandering Company looks badly faded, but it's intriguing enough that it doesn't matter.
Also offering insight into the company's operations is James Ivory's 12-minute memorial to his late partner Ismael Merchant. The two main features on the film, "Building Howards End" and "The Design of Howards End," also shed light on the filmmakers' partnership as they show the preparations for the movie. There's also a behind-the-scenes featurette made at the time of release that really doesn't tell you a heck of a lot of anything.
There's no commentary, but there's an essay booklet by Kenneth Turan of Morning Edition that covers the basics.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
With the attention paid to the Merchant Ivory partnership in this edition, perhaps Criterion missed the boat. Wouldn't it have been more interesting to release The Householders, Shakespeare-Wallah, or perhaps even The Savages, an obscure surreal film the team made in the Seventies?
There's also one of those trailers that pretty much tells the story in two minutes. It probably could substitute for screening the whole film if you've read the book and just want to see how it looks on screen.
While Howards End does seem to lose a bit in the translation, it's still an above-average movie. The edition isn't packed to the gills with extras, but in The Wandering Company, Criterion managed to dig up an extra that makes the set at least worth a Netflix request for any aspiring filmmakers.
Not guilty. Perhaps James Ivory's next project should be a drama about the
genesis of Merchant Ivory. That could be Merchant Ivory's most fascinating
period epic yet.
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