Howards End

  • Reviewed by: Barrie Maxwell
  • Review Date: Nov 10, 2009
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Director

James Ivory

Release Date(s)

1992 (November 3, 2009)

Studio(s)

Merchant Ivory (Criterion - Spine #488)

Review

During the 1986-1993 period, Merchant Ivory produced its three most well-known films – A Room with a View, Howards End, and The Remains of the Day.  All are absorbing period pieces with A Room with a View being the most intimate and The Remains of the Day the most accessible and successful from a box office point of view.  Howards End is, however, the most fully-rounded and impressive of the three.

It chronicles the intersection of the worlds of the Schlegels (a family of three siblings who are all cultured people immersed in the London intellectual scene) and the Wilcoxes (a family of the aristocracy with business interests in London and property in the country including the romantic home called Howards End).  When Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins) loses his wife (Vanessa Redgrave) to illness, he falls in love with Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson) who had befriended his wife while the couple was in London at the time of their son’s marriage.  The happiness of the Henry/Margaret union is complicated by former insurance clerk Leonard Bast (Samuel West) whom Margaret and Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham Carter) had tried to help, based on a business tip from Henry Wilcox.  When Henry’s advice proved to be inaccurate, Bast becomes destitute and Helen’s efforts to help him and his wife lead to a heightening conflict with her sister and new in-laws.

Set in the very early part of the 20th century, the film is more than an absorbing story set against a faithfully recreated urban and rural England.  It effectively mirrors the changing world that was Edwardian England at that time – the gradual loosening of the power of the aristocracy, the rise of the lower classes, the beginnings of the transfer of property from the old moneyed set, and the increasing role of mechanization.  The film’s depiction of the period is persuasive in its ability to make it not just look right, but feel authentic.  The characters have the air of real people living in a real world rather than actors performing on an artificial set.  Part of this is due to the superb production design by Luciana Arrighi who justifiably won an Academy Award for her work.  Credit is also due to the work of the impressive cast who uniformly breathe life into E.M. Forster’s myriad characters.  Emma Thompson’s work as Margaret centres the film’s array of impressive acting performances, just as the character itself is at the core of the whole story.  Thompson’s Oscar-winning performance is one that builds in intensity and warmth just as the character itself gradually reveals its inner strength and fortitude.  The supporting work by Hopkins, Carter, and particularly Redgrave is all superior.  For Anthony Hopkins, the impressive characterization of Henry Wilcox was just one of many such in the 1990s, the actor’s most impressive decade of work (Silence of the Lambs, Dracula, Shadowlands, Legends of the Fall, Nixon, The Edge, Meet Joe Black, The Mask of Zorro, and others).

Howards End is a film that draws attention to itself not through flashy action sequences or extensive use of CGI, but in the best way possible – by employing great story telling, well-crafted dialogue, nuanced acting performances, gorgeous cinematography, and sterling production values all marshaled by a director (James Ivory) who values substance over individual style.  The film was never anything less than a major production, yet the budget was only $8 million.  Major productions that could get away with spending such a low sum nowadays should be so lucky to be one-tenth the film Howards End is!

Criterion, which previously released Howards End on DVD four years ago via its Home Vision Entertainment subsidiary, has brought the film to Blu-ray with a 2.35:1 HD transfer supervised by cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts and approved by director James Ivory.  The results are impressive.  Colours are vibrant and true; blacks are deep; image sharpness and detail are very good.  Scenes in London and in the English countryside are equally impressive.  There is light natural film grain evident and no sign of edge effects.  Age-related speckles, scratches and other debris have virtually all been excised.  The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is derived from the original 6-track magnetic soundtrack and delivers a rich and subtly enveloping experience.  The score by Richard Robbins has never sounded more vibrant or immersive.  Dialogue is always clear and is well balanced with the rest of the soundtrack.

The supplement package is basically the same very fine one that was on the 2005 DVD with the addition of a 13-minute HD featurette in which James Ivory reminisces about his now-deceased partner Ismail Merchant.  The carry-over extras, now all in HD, include a 42-minute making-of documentary that includes in-depth interviews with Helena Bonham Carter and production designer Luciana Arrighi; a 50-minute 1984 documentary on the history of Merchant Ivory until then; a 9-minute featurette focusing on the production design; a short, vintage behind-the-scenes featurette; and the original theatrical trailer.  There a new essay on the film by film critic Kenneth Turan, included on a booklet in the disc’s case.

Criterion has done the superb film that is Howards End proud in its new Blu-ray edition.  Very highly recommended.

- Barrie Maxwell

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