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Howard's End

Howard's End(1992)

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For the storied production team of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory, their adaptation of E.M. Forster's Edwardian novel Howards End (1992) continues to represent a high watermark in their longtime collaboration. While having many a lush period piece examining class struggle in their prior portfolio, this film found the broadest mass acceptance for their work to date, and ultimately garnered three Academy Awards out of nine total nominations. Home Vision Entertainment has recently re-released Howards End to DVD in a two-disc special edition as part of their comprehensive series of Merchant/Ivory titles, and their efforts in presenting the film and complementing it with worthwhile extras will not disappoint.

The narrative, set in early 1900's Britain, tracks the path of the Schlegels, a small family of upper middle-class London intellectuals, and its intersection with that of the wealthy Wilcox clan. The families' acquaintance weathers a social gaffe when the headstrong young Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham Carter) reads more into a romantic summertime dalliance with Paul Wilcox (Joseph Bennett) than was intended. Matters get smoothed over the following season when the Wilcoxes take an apartment near the Schlegels' soon-to-be-foreclosed home, and Paul's sickly, ethereal mother Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave) forges a friendship with Helen's effervescent older sister Margaret (Emma Thompson).

Ruth dies shortly thereafter, and the bond that she so swiftly developed with Margaret apparently ran deep. Much to the appalled chagrin of her children, their mother left a handwritten document leaving Margaret their titular country estate. The family patriarch, the stuffy but shrewd shipping tycoon Henry (Anthony Hopkins), determines to carefully feel Miss Schlegel out regarding her knowledge of the bequest, and unexpectedly finds himself taken by her charm over the weeks that ensue.

The other prong of the drama goes to the relationship that the Schlegels fortuitously develop with the intelligent and aesthetic but dirt-poor clerk Leonard Bast (Samuel West). Upon hearing an off-handed remark from Henry regarding the financial straits of Bast's employer, Helen entreats the young man to quit and find work elsewhere. His acquiescence proves disastrous once his former company weathers its difficulties, and he's unable to land a new job. The outraged Helen's demands that Henry makes things right drives all three families into tragic conflict.

The virtues of Howards End are many, beginning with the efforts of the cast. Thompson deservedly took home that year's Oscar® for Best Actress, as she memorably conveyed Margaret's exuberant intelligence and fundamental decency. Hopkins is no less memorable in depicting how the hard edges of the imperious Henry gradually soften from her influence. Bonham Carter registers well as Helen's advocacy for Bast slides into dangerous zeal, Redgrave wrests a great deal from a limited amount of screen time as the doomed but serene Ruth. Note also has to be given James Wilby and Jemma Redgrave as the priggish balance of the Wilcox brood, and Nicola Duffett as Bast's crass ex-shopgirl wife.

The opulence with which Howards End recreates its sense of time and place belies the film's $8 million budget, and all credit is due to production designers Luciana Arrighi for her Academy Award-winning work. The film's final Oscar went to Merchant and Ivory's reliable scenarist, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, whose adaptation of Forster's prose for the screen was both faithful in tone and surprisingly complete. Criterion's mastering job for the new DVD release, presented in the original 2:35 theatrical aspect ratio, does justice to the vivid color cinematography of Tony Pierce-Roberts.

The robust selection of supplemental materials put together for the special edition leads off with the new 42-minute documentary Building Howards End. While Home Vision Entertainment has done a superlative job across the board with the new documentary materials provided with its Merchant/Ivory line, this effort raises the bar, providing insightful reflections from the producer and director as well as Bonham Carter and Arrighi. Arrighi and costume designer Jenny Beavan take center stage in the 9-minute Designing Howards End, exploring their impressive handiwork for the production. Merchant/Ivory completists should appreciate The Wandering Company, a 49-minute docu made during the production of A Room With A View (1992) that recaps the first 20 years of the creative partnership. A five-minute featurette from the time of Howards End's release and a theatrical trailer complete the extras package.

For more information about Howards End, visit Home Vision Entertainment. To order Howards End, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jay S. Steinberg