Howards End Review

Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham Carter) is due to be married to Paul Wilcox, the son of a wealthy family. Unfortunately the engagement breaks up, but the episode brings Helen’s older sister Margaret (Emma Thompson) into contact with the Wilcox family. She soon strikes up a friendship with Paul’s mother Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave). Recognising a kindred spirit, Ruth wants Margaret to visit her at the Wilcoxes’ family home in the country, Howards End, but it isn’t to be, as Ruth dies shortly afterwards. She leaves Howards End in her will to Margaret, but her family, led by Ruth’s husband Henry (Anthony Hopkins), suppress this part of the will. But the fates of the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels are due to be further intertwined…

After two previous films based on E.M. Forster’s novels, A Room with a View in 1985 and Maurice in 1987, Merchant Ivory went for the big one. Howards End, published in 1910, is usually considered one of Forster’s greatest novels, second only to A Passage to India (filmed by David Lean in 1984). This film brought to an end the 80s “Forster boom”, sparked off by the success of A Room with a View. With Merchant Ivory’s three films to date and Lean’s one, plus Charles Sturridge’s turgid 1991 take on Where Angels Fear to Tread, only The Longest Journey remains unfilmed of Forster’s novels. Howards End introduces Forster’s famous theme of “Only connect”, a probably idealistic hope that people from different backgrounds could join together. In his novel, Howards End is a metaphor for England itself: Forster sees it passing from the moneyed aristocracy (the Wilcoxes) to the bourgeoisie (the Schlegels), ever concerned and philanthropic in a somewhat patronising way to those less fortunate than themselves. These are represented by Leonard Bast (Samuel West), a clerk whom Helen meets by chance and whom the Schlegels pass on financial advice (given to them by Henry Wilcox) which ruins him.

Howards End, along with the film which immediately followed it, The Remains of the Day, also marks a high water mark in Merchant Ivory’s public and critical profile. Although they had been making films since 1963, Merchant Ivory’s films found themselves in the 1980s – a decade of Conservative government – taken up as exemplars of “heritage cinema”. They were seen as being exponents of an essentially reactionary, literary-based, self-consciously “prestige” cinema, often attracting audiences who otherwise never went to the cinema. With the turn of the decade and a change in climate, there was an inevitable backlash and Merchant Ivory soon became deeply unfashionable in Britain and they remain so to this day. (It doesn’t help that Ivory’s recent films are to all accounts not up to his best work, though as I’ve only seen one of them – Surviving Picasso – I can’t really comment on that.) Whatever shortcomings you might find in Ivory’s work, and I’ll come back to that in a moment, it can’t be denied that in his best films he shows a light touch that’s missing from many other filmmakers working with similar material – and that goes for Ismail Merchant’s directorial efforts too. It’s not fair to blame anyone for inferior imitators, but the success of A Room with a View spawned far too many of them. If you’ve sat through one prettily-photographed, well-acted, worthy but deadly dull period literary adaptation then you’ve sat through a hundred…something anyone who was a regular cinemagoer in the 1980s is likely to agree with. It’s also the case that Merchant Ivory’s Forster and Henry James adaptations have become the template for films based on Victorian/Edwardian classic literature, and anyone else making such films has always felt the need to distance themselves from their work. There are people who will say that Merchant Ivory miss layers of irony from Forster and James, and that they make classic literature look interchangeable (partly due to reusing key actors and crewmembers). There’s certainly truth in these charges. But if Howards End is only surface-level Forster, that surface is so engaging – the look of the film, the literacy and wit of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay, the skill of the acting, the compelling story – that it would be churlish to complain too much.

Howards End is released as part of Odyssey Quest’s 20-film Merchant Ivory Collection. It’s available on its own, as part of the six-film Connoisseur Collection (along with Autobiography of a Princess, Hullaballoo Over Georgie and Bonnie’s Pictures, Maurice, Quartet and Savages) and in the full 20-film boxset. The DVD is encoded for Region 2 only.

Ivory and DP Tony Pierce-Roberts had worked together before on A Room with a View and were concerned to make Howards End look different from the earlier film. This involved using a new Kodak filmstock which gave brighter colours than the Fuji stock they had used previously. Howards End became the first Ivory film in Scope, being shot in Super 35 and shown in 70mm at showcase cinemas. Ivory doesn’t seem entirely at ease with the wider format, often placing characters near the centre of the frame as if he were still shooting in 1.85:1 and the sides of the frame had been extended outwards. There’s little to complain about the DVD transfer, which is anamorphic in the correct ratio of 2.35:1. You can tell there’s nothing amiss from the opening shot: a scene at dusk showing Vanessa Redgrave’s skirt dragging through the grass as she walks through the grounds of Howards End. Shadow detail is excellent and there’s no artefacting that I could spot. The transfer also copes well with the brighter, more colourful daytime scenes. The way Howards End itself is photographed, you can quite understand how someone could fall in love with it.

There are two soundtrack options on this DVD, the default Dolby Surround and a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. With both tracks, the surrounds favour Richard Robbins’s music score though there are some directional sound effects. However, with a film like this, the dialogue is everything, which makes it regrettable that no subtitles are provided. There are sixteen chapter stops.

The list of extras on this DVD varies from one source to another. I can only review what is on the checkdisk I received, and to note that quite a few extras passed by the BBFC are not on it. There is no commentary (as is usual for the Merchant Ivory collection) but this is made up for by some long, in-depth interviews. First up are Merchant and Ivory themselves (running 20:02) talking about how the film began – it was Jhabvala’s suggestion though Ivory had read the book before – to discussing the casting and the film’s look (which I summarise above). Merchant and Ivory occasionally correct each other but their rapport is obvious. Helena Bonham Carter is up next, admitting that she’s likely typecast by acting in Forster adaptations – she appears in all of them except A Passage to India – but she has no regrets as she considers him to create fine women characters. Her interview runs 19:10. Production designer Luciana Arrighi describes her approach to the film, which begins by reading the script and assessing the mood of each scene and locale. She also shows some of her initial drawings, in a featurette running 7:57. Finally, Arrighi and costume designer Jenny Beavan talk about “The Look of Howards End” (20:19), from their original meetings with Merchant and Ivory – in Beavan’s case a chance one as a child in the 1950s – to their contribution to the film and what the recognition of their peers, in the form of Oscar nominations, meant to them. All four featurettes are 16:9 anamorphic. They do mention scenes deleted from the final version, so it’s a pity that we don’t get to see them on this DVD. Similarly there’s no trailer for Howards End itself, though the disc contains trailers for Bombay Talkie, Shakespeare Wallah and The Bostonians. This may be a consequence of presenting the film on a single disc, instead of two as was the case for the similar-length Maurice. Even so, they could still include the same FACT anti-piracy advert which features on every Merchant Ivory Collection DVD I’ve seen so far.

Howards End, even if it misses the complexity of the source novel, is one of Merchant Ivory’s best films. Their type of cinema may be out of fashion but it rarely comes better than this. The transfer is excellent, though some extras may have gone astray.

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Last updated: 23/06/2018 00:19:23

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