“Costume drama” is a term that can seem pejorative, especially in an age where period films are often cranked out with little regard for much besides the elegant attire that defined the era. There are hoop skirts and corsets, but other than these wholly artificial structures, there is little of substance or interest. Maybe the costumes are supposed to entrance the audience to a place where neither story nor interesting characters are a consideration (look no further than the recent filmography of Keira Knightley).
But then there’s 1992’s Howards End, a vibrant and vivacious reminder that the costumes in a period drama can be a finely tuned detail rather than the main attraction. There is nothing stiff or artificial about Howards End, one of the most successful collaborations between producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory, thanks both to some sumptuously lush photography and a first-rate cast that includes the delightful Emma Thompson, who won an Oscar for her role.
Based on the novel by E.M. Forster, Howards End gets the Blu-ray treatment from The Criterion Collection by virtue of triumphing in an online poll on Amazon.com, which allowed users to vote from a selection of five films to determine a future Criterion Blu-ray release. (The others were Au Revoir Les Enfants, Down By Law, Kwaidan, and Picnic at Hanging Rock.) It can’t be considered too great of a surprise that Howards End took the top spot — one viewing, and it becomes clear why the film is beloved.
Thompson stars as Margaret Schlegel, a middle-class woman in Edwardian England. She receives word that her sister Helen (Helena Bonham Carter, charming and impudent) has begun an engagement with a young man from the very wealthy Wilcox family. The engagement quickly reveals itself to be a sham, but it’s just the beginning of a long-term relationship with the Wilcox family, its patriarch Henry (Anthony Hopkins), and his wife, Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave).
Margaret and Ruth strike up a close friendship, which leads to a surprising revelation that the Wilcoxes are loath to accept when the frail Ruth passes away. Meanwhile in London, the Schlegels strike up a friendship with Leonard Bast (Samuel West), a lowly clerk whom they inadvertently meet when Helen mistakenly takes the wrong umbrella.
Margaret and Helen are instinctively drawn to helping Leonard, and they look to the vast resources of the Wilcox family to do so. At the same time, Margaret and Henry begin to grow closer.
Howards End is a masterful look at class divisions and family loyalties, and the sometimes difficult juxtaposition of the two. The characters are clearly drawn, but the film never feels obvious, or even succumbs to archetypal behavior. The characters may be archetypes, but they are also very human, which gives the film its vibrancy.
That’s due to both the Oscar-winning script by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and the singularly excellent performances. Veterans Hopkins and Redgrave are supremely dignified in their portrayals, but they also let down in moments that allow the viewer to see the person of their character. The film’s true star is Thompson, though. She gives the kind of performance that is so heartfelt, so subtly realized and so effortlessly likable that you fall in love with that actor and must see everything they do from that point on.
Howards End is no ordinary period piece — it’s the characters that matter, not the period. The factory-assembled, corset-obsessed period films of recent years could learn something from it.
The Blu-ray Disc
Howards End is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The director-approved visual presentation is frequently stunning, especially in the film’s interludes that feature some gorgeous nature photography. The green of the tall grasses and the purple of the flowers pop off the screen. Interior scenes are just as successful, with high amounts of fine detail visible that greatly enhance Jenny Beavan and John Bright’s costume design and Luciana Arrighi’s production design. Impeccably created, these elements of the film shine in high definition. Flaws in the film stock have also been almost entirely removed.
The audio is presented in Dolby DTS-HD 5.1 surround sound, and features a strong sense of place thanks to the abundant ambient noise, particularly in exterior scenes. The film is dialogue-centric, leaving much of the work to the front channel, but the mix is crisp, clear and without any distraction.