Howards End: Criterion Collection
March 1, 2010
Sandwiched between Merchant Ivory hits, A Room with a View (1985) and The Remains of the Day (1993), Howards End (1992) epitomizes the filmmaking duo of Ismail Merchant (producer) and James Ivory (director) at the height of their powers, second to none when it came to elegant literary adaptations. Based on E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel of the same name, the film explores the differences between middle and upper class people in Edwardian England. Howards End made quite an impact in its day, garnering an impressive 9 Academy Award nominations and winning 4, including one for actress Emma Thompson.
The film opens at dusk with Ruth Wilcox (Redgrave) walking leisurely through the tall grass that surrounds Howards End, a sprawling estate that her family owns. Soon after, one of her sons, Paul, and his girlfriend Helen Schlegel (Carter) sneak out for a kiss among the trees. However, their affair is short-lived as he goes to Africa and has no money of his own to support the two of them. A year goes by and the Schlegel family crosses paths with the Wilcoxes when their oldest son Charles (Wilby) gets married in London in a house across from the Schlegels. Helen’s sister Margaret (Thompson) meets with Ruth and they talk about Paul and Helen’s brief affair.
Margaret and Ruth become fast friends and the latter invites the former to Howards End. Some of the film’s warmest and most engaging scenes are the ones depicting the friendship that develops between these two women. Ruth is frail due to ill health but she finds genuine happiness in the company of Margaret, played vibrantly by Emma Thompson. One wishes that she and Vanessa Redgrave shared more screen time together as they have wonderful chemistry.
Fresh from his Academy Award-winning turn as Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Anthony Hopkins shows off his impressive range as the no-nonsense patriarch of Howards End who gradually falls under the considerable charms of Margaret, played with irrepressible charm by Thompson. Already a sensation in her native England, her performance in this film helped raise the actress’ profile in North America. Helena Bonham Carter is also excellent as Margaret’s passionate, outspoken sister Helen. She and Thompson play well off each other and are quite believable as sisters.
For admirers of period dramas and classy literary adaptations, Howards End is a masterpiece, the kind of film that has seldom been made since Merchant’s unfortunate passing and has now become a staple of PBS and Masterpiece Theatre. Watching this film again serves as a potent reminder of what a formidable team Merchant Ivory were and how poorer cinema is with their absence.
The Criterion Collection previously released this film before on DVD and has revisited it but this time with a new and improved transfer of the film and one new extra. All of the rest of the supplemental material has also been carried over making this not an entirely essential purchase unless this is the first time you’re buying this film or are a die-hard fan.
The first disc includes the theatrical trailer.
The second disc starts off with “Building Howards End,” a 42-minute retrospective look at the making of this film. Ismail Merchant and James Ivory discuss the origins of the project and in the process argue about it like an old married couple. The two men tell a funny anecdote about the challenge of realizing a scene that was Ivory’s favourite from the book only to cut it from the film. Most interestingly, they talk about the casting process, including how they sidestepped Anthony Hopkins’ agent and gave him the script directly. Helena Bonham Carter talks about her character and what drew her to the role.
“The Design of Howards End” takes a look at the period costumes and production design for the film. A lot of care and research was done in order to authentically recreate Edwardian England.
“The Wandering Company” is a 1984 documentary about Merchant Ivory during the planning stages for A Room with a View. Running 49 minutes, it takes a thorough look at the filmmaking duo’s illustrious history up to that point in time. This is a fascinating look at the prolific partnership that had made 20 films in 23 years!
New to this release is “James Ivory on Ismail Merchant, 2009” where he recalls memories of his good friend and filmmaking partner. He talks about how they met and tells some good stories about Merchant with genuine affection.
Finally, there is “Behind the Scenes,” a promotional featurette done at the time of the film’s release that features clips from Howards End with sound bites from the cast and crew.