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Merchant Ivory Productions presents
Howards End (1992)

"I wish you would give us Howards End."
- Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson)

Review By: Jeff Ulmer  
Published: February 15, 2005

Stars: Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter, Vanessa Redgrave
Other Stars: Samuel West, James Wilby, Joseph Bennett, Susie Lindeman, Prunella Scales, Adrian Ross Magenty, Jemma Redgrave, Nicola Duffett, Jo Kendall
Director: James Ivory

MPAA Rating: PG for (some mature themes)
Run Time: 02h:22m:05s
Release Date: February 15, 2005
UPC: 037429198223
Genre: drama


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A+ A+AA B-

DVD Review

While Merchant Ivory had seen moderate success with their adaptations of Henry James' novels, The Europeans and The Bostonians, it is their treatment of E.M. Forster's writings that has established them as the premier producers of period drama. 1985's A Room With a View took the film world by storm, garnering three Oscars and eight nominations, and opened the door for a slew of similar works. While its successor, Maurice failed to gain much critical fanfare, the return of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and her Academy Award-winning screenplay, Howards End, would raise the bar as a new standard, and be hailed as a masterpiece. In addition to claiming Oscars, the film would be also be nominated for Best Cinematography (Tony Pierce-Roberts), Best Costume Design (Jenny Beavan and John Bright), Best Director (James Ivory), Best Music—Original Score (Richard Robbins) and Best Picture (Ismail Merchant).

With an unprecedented (by Merchant Ivory standards) eight-million-dollar budget, the production landed Anthony Hopkins, fresh from an Oscar win for his role in Silence of the Lambs, and Emma Thompson, who would take the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role. Returning to the Merchant Ivory fold were Helena Bonham Carter and Thomas Wilby, both of whom appeared in their previous Forster adaptations, and Vanessa Redgrave (nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role) playing a part that is the polar opposite of her lead in The Bostonians.

Howards End takes its title from the building that provides the central theme. The story revolves around the interactions of three families from different classes; the Wilcoxes, an old money, upper crust family headed by business tycoon Henry (Hopkins), and his wife, Ruth (Redgrave); Margaret and Helen Schelgel (Thompson and Bonham Carter), a pair of bourgeois sisters; and the lower class Basts (Samuel West and Nicola Duffett), who fall victim to the Schelgel's misguided philanthropy.

Our introduction begins with a fleeting but scandalous encounter at Howards End between young Helen and Wilcox's son, Paul (Joseph Bennett), an event both would dismiss as folly, had it not been for Helen's premature letter to her sister Margaret, professing her newfound love. The ramifications of the letter demand that Helen's Aunt Juley (Prunella Scales) head immediately to the Wilcox's country residence to ascertain their social standing, and whether this match is acceptable. When the misunderstanding is exposed, the matter is all but forgotten, that is until the Wilcox family moves into a leased flat directly opposite the Schlegel's while attending the wedding of the elder Wilcox boy, Charles.

Fearing another potential embarrassment, a hasty retreat of both Helen and Paul to other parts of the globe ensues, but with the respective parties out of the way, Margaret soon strikes up a rapport with Ruth, who is dismayed to learn that the Schlegel's are soon to lose the residence of their birth, insisting that Margaret accompany her to her own lifelong home, Howards End, a plan that is scuttled at the last moment. When Ruth's dying wish, scrawled on an unsigned note, bequeaths Howards End to Margaret, her family rejects the claim, but the fate of Howards End is anything but decided.

Through circumstance, the Schegels meet Leonard Bast, a young clerk far below their social standing to whom they decide to extend their help, whether he wants it or not. When the women learn from Henry that Leonard's place of employment is in trouble, they urge the young man to seek work elsewhere, with unfortunate consequences. Meanwhile, Margaret employs Henry to locate a new residence for her, but the widower has his own intentions, which will ultimately challenge Margaret's sense of duty. As you can see, the story is rich in complexity, interweaving the various relationships and events, which culminate in an unexpected finale.

The casting is flawless. Thompson's Margaret treads a fine line between her love for her sister, and the place she for which she is destined in society, while Bonham Carter's animated and reckless Helen threatens to undermine everything. Hopkins gives a commanding performance as the staunch and deceitful aristocrat, but with just enough of a conscience to make the audience sympathetic to him. Despite limited screen time, Redgrave, too, gives her character dimension and heart. The supporting cast serves the picture equally well, each adding their own color to the ensemble.

These finely crafted performances are enveloped in the exquisite and sumptuous period detail brought by production designer Luciana Arrighi (who claimed the Oscar for Best Art Direction/Set Decoration) and the costumes of the award-winning Jenny Beavan and John Bright. The film is filled with magnificent locations and stunning architecture, from the quaint, foliage-enshrouded titular house to the many London visages and grand interiors. Cinematographer, Tony Pierce-Roberts, convinced Ivory to use a new and more vivid film stock, and also to shoot for the first time in scope, which brings the Edwardian atmosphere to life with brilliant and imaginative compositions, making this a feast for the eyes. Richard Robbins' Oscar-nominated score drives the film with its almost Phillip Glass-like passages. The end result is a wonderful, multi-layered story, which is, as Ismail Merchant states in the film's original featurette, "perfect in every way."

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: Presented in a new 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer, the image quality is nothing short of spectacular. Colors exude their full richness and depth, black levels and contrast are perfect. Detail is exquisite with no signs of tranfer induced artifacts. Source defects are all but nonexistent. This is one gorgeous-looking transfer.

Image Transfer Grade: A

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishno


Audio Transfer Review: Audio is presented in a 5.1 surround mix, which like the video is flawless. Dialogue is clean and well defined. The surround channels aren't overly exaggerated, taking only subtle atmosphere and Robbins' score.

Audio Transfer Grade: A

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Production Notes
2 Documentaries
2 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extras Review: A nice selection of extras is included on the second disc, starting with Building Howards End, a 42m:33s look back at the production with producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, star Helena Bonham Carter, production designer, Luciana Arrighi, contributes her background in chosing locations, including the pivotal choice of the title residence. Helena Bonham Carter discusses her involvement with the Merchant Ivory team. What is particularly fascinating is the dynamic between Merchant and Ivory, whose views and recollections of things are often diametrically opposed.

Designing Howards End (8m:56s) focuses on Luciana Arrighi and Jenny Beavan's roles in production design and costuming. Arrighi takes us through the design process using sketches, while Beavan discusses the challenges in creating period correct fashions.

The Wandering Company (49m:35s) is a 1984 retrospective filmed during the preparation of A Room with a View, celebrating the first 20 years of the Merchant-Ivory collaboration. With excerpts from many of their Indian films, and insights from the team and many of their stars including Jennifer and Felicity Kendall, Shashi Kapoor, Nickolas Grace, and Christopher Reeve, the feature paints a picture of the Merchant Ivory world—one where money is always at risk of running out.

A brief 4m:31s 1992 featurette on Howards End contains interview segments from the cast and producers. Much of the video here looks time-compressed.

The film's theatrical trailer rounds out the on-disc extras.

The insert features another essay by Merchant Ivory expert Robert Emmet Long.

Extras Grade: B-

 

Final Comments

More than a decade later, Howards End remains one of the finest period pieces ever created, and a high water mark in the Merchant Ivory Collection. Superb performances, outstanding visuals and design, and a brilliant script make for an essential and richly rewarding viewing experience. This new edition adds worthy supplements and an improved transfer, leaving no option other than to give it my highest recommendation.

 


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