I must confess I had seen only one Merchant Ivory film before finally viewing Howards End (1992) for this Blu-ray review. It was the 2005 film The White Countess with Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson, and I remember being struck by its cinematography, careful direction, and pace.
Similarly, Howards End, based on the eponymous 1910 E. M. Forster novel, shares those same qualities—this time of Edwardian England instead of early 19th Century China. Howards End is often considered one of the best films from the collaborative trio of director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.
Howards End starts with Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave) strolling through the grounds of her beloved rural home as her family and friends enjoys themselves inside the rustic and relatively modest house. Wealth is an important theme, and outside of this rural house (Howards End), almost everything else you see is grand and opulent—save for Leonard Bast (Samuel West) and his property (but we’ll get to that later).
In the next few months, Ruth becomes close with Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson), Helen’s sister (Helena Bonham Carter) to whom was previously engaged to her oldest son, Paul (Joseph Bennett). Later on her deathbed, Ruth wills her home at Howards End to Margaret. Margaret doesn’t know any of this as the Wilcox family, led by the now-widowed Henry (Anthony Hopkins), burns the unsigned handwritten note.
The uncomfortable knowledge of this secret wish becomes a motif throughout the rest of the film, from stunned looks of the Wilcox family as Margaret glibly mentions she should have Howards End, to passing inside jokes, and Henry’s emphatic denial of Helen’s request to stay there for a night.
Howards End features many scenes that end with a fade to black—some of which are immediate, but, interestingly enough, not entirely finished (Ivory discusses this editing choice in an interview on the bonus disc). One notable scene that includes this sharp cutting has Margaret confronting her now-fiancé Henry about the just-witnessed altercation between Henry and Jacky (Nicola Duffett), Leonard’s wife, to whom Margaret and Helen, especially, feels responsibility for. It turns out he and Jacky had an affair ten years earlier in Cypress when he was lonely (married at the time) and she was desperate. Upon this reveal, Henry rescinded his marriage proposal, but Margaret repeatedly assured at all was forgiven.
Class inequality is another important theme, and how this struggle for equality will effect England’s future. Much of the narrative on class inequality centers on Leonard and how his orbits around the Wilcoxes and Schlegels undeniably cause much friction between the latter families, especially when Margaret and Henry eventually wed; Howards End, however, symbolically represents the future. Through marriage to Henry, will Margaret and her bohemian values finally get Howards End? Or will the Wilcoxes find another way of keeping Ruth’s final wish from being realized.
Almost 25 years later, the themes of Ivory’s film adaption do not feel dated despite it being over 110 years since Forster first published Howards End. Wealth and class inequality are still very much important topics well into the 21st Century because history repeats for those in control who don’t learn from the past or quite simply ignore it.
Ivory and cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts supervised the newly restored 4k digital remaster of Howards End. Ivory noted Blu-ray viewers would be seeing a much crisper and more colorful version than moviegoers in 1992, given how much work went into the remaster (including color grading) and given the less-than-stellar film print copies made for cinemas almost 25 years ago. The resulting video quality is excellent with no noticeable artifacts. Also included is a 5.1 surround sound audio track restored by Audio Mechanics that showcases Richard Robbins’ wonderful score.
The 25th anniversary edition features numerous extras. The main highlight is an audio commentary track with film critics Wade Major and Lael Lowenstein who discuss in greater detail additional themes that aren’t highlighted in other supplements. For example, Ivory uses height and camera tilts well to denote class structure: the Schlegels are generally shown as looking down on the Basts and the Wilcoxes are almost always shown looking down at everyone else. The use of windows is another theme discussed in the commentary; characters continually look in them as a way to see into another person’s world (usually with envy).
Additional supplements included on the bonus disc:
- 26-minute conversation (2016) with Ivory and Laurence Kardish, former senior curator of film at Moma, about the film’s many themes, casting choices, and anecdotes about the production.
- Brief eight minute interview with Ivory and actress Vanessa Redgrave at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. Answering to a question about Cannes, Redgrave laments the opulence being displayed in the southern French city.
- Nearly 30-minute on-stage Q&A with Ivory and critic Michael Koresky at Lincoln Center in 2016. Ivory spends a chunk of the Q&A discussing Forster and adapting a few of Forster’s novels into films.
- Brisk four-minute promotional behind-the-scenes short featurette (1992) with the cast and crew.
- 40-minute documentary ″Building Howards End″ with insights from Ivory, Merchant, Bonham Carter, and other members of the cast and crew. Merchant and Ivory provide an interesting tidbit about trying to cast Redgrave in the film by sending her multiple copies of the script to ensure she read it and acquiescing to her demand to double her salary offer; Merchant immediately agreed, which stunned Redgrave at the time.
- Brief eight-minute featurette highlighting the work of Luciana Arrighi (production design) and Jenny Beavan (costume design) on the film.
- Eight-minute featurette on Ivory discussing his personal and professional relationship with the late Merchant. Ivory reveals in one statement that he didn’t actually fully grasp until Merchant was gone just how much work Merchant did on the logistical and financial sides in order to help free him to concentrate more heavily on production work.
- Original 1992 theatrical trailer and 2016 re-release trailer.
The collectible booklet includes film stills and selected essays and notes from Ivory, Arrighi, and John Pym. Much of what Ivory writes can also be heard on the numerous interviews he has on the bonus disc. He devotes his last paragraph to why he feels the 4k remaster is the definitive look for the film just as he and his collaborators intended. Arrighi writes about how she stressed about the look and feel of the various homes in the film, including the titular home; she ends with a touching anecdote about Merchant. Pym, who also penned an essay for The Criterion Collection’s release of A Room with a View, is a must read for a more eloquent treatise on Howards End and its themes.
Film stills courtesy of Cohen Media Group