To American audiences, the late producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory are best known for their trio of E.M. Forster adaptations – which is telling for careers spanning 40 years and nearly 30 films together (almost all with writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala), making their Forster output roughly ten percent of their body of work. But then again, the names “Merchant and Ivory” are a sort of cinematic shorthand used to denote British films about boring people. My review of Howard’s End after the jump.
That’s not fair, it’s shorthand for particular literary works set at the turn of the century that depict the British class system in all of its repressive reputation, making it impossible for anyone to express their true feelings. To be fair, M&I’s Forster adaptations have been because of their most successful entries, with both A Room with a View and Howard’s End receiving multiple Oscar nominations and playing for long runs at American art houses. And yet for their supposed refinement, Merchant and Ivory worked almost exclusively outside of the Hollywood and British film industries. It’s weird to think of them as mavericks, but that’s the road they travelled. To top it all, Ivory was born in California and Merchant in India, making them both outsiders to England. Perhaps such is why their Forster adaptations are so revered: Foreign to the culture they’re famous for depicting, they seek the heart of the drama within alien landscapes.
Howard’s End follows two families, the Wilcoxes, headed up by Henry (Anthony Hopkins) and Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave), and the Schlegels, a family that consists mostly of sisters Margaret (Emma Thompson) and Helen (Helena Bonham Carter). The families first interact when Helen falls for Paul Wilcox at Howard’s End, but their romance is temporary, and not marriage material. This summer fling sends Helen in a tizzy, and she’s still upset months later when Paul’s brother Charles Wilcox (James Wilby) gets married and rents a flat next door to the Schlegels. But their proximity allows Margaret and Ruth to become friends, and the two plan on going to Howard’s End, yet cannot when Ruth’s health begins failing. In a fit before her death, Ruth writes a note leaving Howard’s End to Margaret, but Henry and the rest of the family agree to ignore it as the scribbling of a dying woman. The Schelgel women also are invested in helping the underclass Leonard Bast (Samuel West), but it seems everything they do for him hurts him at work, or in his marriage to Jacky (Nicola Duffett).
Looking for a new place to live, Margaret strikes up a friendship with Henry that leads to marriage. But it’s Henry’s daughter Evie’s nuptials that bring the Basts to the Wilcox family; Leonard is now out of work, and Helen drags the Basts to the wedding party, where it’s revealed that Henry knows Jacky intimately. Helen finds herself invested personally and romantically with Leonard, and it’s their relationship that sends the film toward the tragic conclusion that finally puts Howard’s End in Margaret’s hands.
I’m a dude, and I probably shouldn’t admit to liking this film, but it’s engaging as all get out. The most common (and shallow) critiques heard about Merchant & Ivory productions and British period films in general, are that they seem stodgy, stilted, and slow. And yet such complaints are lodged at the very genre itself; it’d be like complaining about the singing in a musical, or the fact that torture porn films have torture.
Howard’s End is about people, and it’s a masterful work because it creates sympathy with, and urgency in, everyone’s plights (not surprising, since Merchant and Ivory were profoundly influenced by both Jean Renoir and Satyajit Ray). And yet, for what is a period piece, the picture moves briskly and is shot beautifully (by Tony-Pierce Roberts); writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala understands how to mine the narrative seam from Forster’s text, while James Ivory gets great performances out of his cast. This was the archetypal Helena Bonham Carter role: a bit tomboyish, bullheaded, and funny, but deeply human. But it’s no surprise that it was Emma Thompson who won an Academy Award for Best Actress this year; the verbose Margaret holds the film together, and through her we see how she deals with working within the system to struggle to get what she wants. Meanwhile, Anthony Hopkins – only a year after chewing the scenery is The Silence of the Lambs – warmly inhabits his role as the turn-of-the-century patriarch. Among his great touches, he covers his face away from Margaret when he feels emotional, which says everything we need to know about the character and his culture. It’s through these few people we see a great and multifaceted story unfold as a touching portrait of two families struggling with the end of an era, and one of the crown jewels of Merchant & Ivory’s career.
Howard’s End was once released as part of Janus’s Merchant and Ivory collection, but now – through Blu-ray, it’s made it to the collection proper as #488. The film is presented in widescreen (2.35:1) and in 5.1 DTS-HD surround. Criterion is quickly becoming the gold standard for the format, and there work here is nothing short of breathtaking. The disc includes “Building Howard’s End,” a 43 min. “making-of” documentary covering the development, shooting, and complicated release of the film (it was originally owned in the U.S. by Orion Classics, which went bankrupt after filming), as well as its eventual success. Included are interviews with James Ivory, Ismail Merchant, Helena Bonham Carter, costume designer Jenny Beavan, and production designer Luciana Arrighi. “The Design of Howard’s End” focuses on Arrighi’s and Beavan’s work on the film, while “The Wandering Company” (50 min.) is a 1984 documentary on the work of Ivory, Merchant, Jhabvala, and their then-20-year partnership. It shows the struggles they faced trying to make movies on shoestring budgets, while suffering the occasional prima donnas. “James Ivory on Ismail Merchant, 2009” (12 min.) lets the director mourn his late partner, and is the only new supplement. Also included are the 1992 featurette (5 min.) and the original theatrical trailer.