Blu-ray Review: Howards End (Criterion Collection)

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My experience with Merchant/Ivory Productions is limited to say the least as Howards End now marks the second film of theirs I have seen, with A Room With a View being the other. While elegantly made, A Room With a View didn’t move me that much, but I can say Howards End did a lot to squelch my fears it too would bore me more than engage me. Criterion brings Howards End to Blu-ray following their previous two-disc DVD release back in 2005, and while the only new feature is a video appreciation of the late producer Ismail Merchant by director James Ivory, this is a film ripe for high definition.

Based on the novel by E.M. Forster, Howards End takes a look at class divisions in Edwardian England and the inheritance of England by the working/lower class. The film centers on the well-to-do Wilcox family and the relationship that results with the middle-class Schlegel family, particularly the relationship between Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins) and Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson).

The title for the film comes from the name of the Wilcox’s country getaway, which serves the story as the physical representation of England. Possession of Howards End comes into play following the death of Ruth Wilcox as played by Vanessa Redgrave who attempts to transfer ownership to Margaret. Margaret’s would-be inheritance is ignored as it arrives much to the dismay of the Wilcox family and ultimate disapproval. A third element of the story is introduced in the form of Leonard Bast (Simon West) who comes to embody the lower class and ultimately serves as the film’s linchpin with Margaret’s sister Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) taking a philanthropic (and then some) interest in Leonard and his wife’s plight.

On top of excellent performances and spectacular storytelling, I was most taken aback by the beauty this film offers in terms of Tony Pierce-Roberts’s cinematography and Richard Robbins’s score (serving as two of the film’s nine Oscar nominations). In fact, if I had any form of musical education, I believe I would have an even greater appreciation for Howards End, and yet I am still able to find enjoyment as the piano plays amongst the wind in the trees and the pounding of the train tracks blend into the film’s score.

As for the cinematography, scenes from this film are so beautiful, many could be captured and framed. Admirers would never even think to guess they were meant for anything other than a wall hanging. This is where Criterion’s processing from the original 35mm interpositive shines through with brilliance. The presentation of color is imperative to enhanced viewing of this film and Criterion delivers, even if there are moments where the brilliance is momentarily lost.

Like I said earlier, the only new supplemental feature is James Ivory’s 12-minute video appreciation of Ismail Merchant, recorded in 2009 special for Criterion’s Blu-ray edition. In it, Ivory discusses his first introduction to Merchant and tells a few stories of their relationship. From here we have a handful of features carried over from the DVD release.

First is the 42-minute 2005 documentary titled “Building Howards End” led primarily by Merchant and Ivory while including interview additions with the likes of production designer Luciana Arrighi, costume designer Jenny Beavan and actress Helena Bonham Carter. It’s an extensive and interesting look at the production, and it can at times become humorous, such as when Merchant goes off on America’s judicial system, particularly the filing of Chapter 11, which led to a legal entanglement involving Howards End and Orion classics. All the while Ivory can only roll his eyes.

The nine-minute 2005 featurette titled “The Design of Howards End” is rather self-explanatory as Arrighi and Beavan lead us through their decisions for the design of the film, which also includes plenty of concept art and talk of their attempts to remain authentic to the period.

“The Wandering Company” is a 49-minute documentary from 1984 looking at the history of Merchant Ivory productions, and also included is a five-minute featurette from 1992 that accompanied the film’s release and the theatrical trailer.

Perhaps the most glaring omissions include the obvious absence of any kind of a commentary track and after watching all the featurettes and documentaries, I am a bit surprised there are no included deleted scenes considering there is plenty of talk about scenes that were filmed, but never made the final cut.

While I still have more Merchant/Ivory films to watch (with The Remains of the Day next on the list), I must say the enjoyment I got out of watching Howards End has me far more interested in continuing the adventure than I was after A Room with a View. This isn’t to say this film is an instant recommendation, but for anyone interested in gorgeous period pieces, acted to excellence you may want to give it some consideration.

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