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Thursday
Sep082016

Howard's End (restoration) reviewed by Hadley Hury

THIS RESTORATION PROJECT IS CAUSE FOR CELEBRATION. 

Howards End (1992, dir. James Ivory)

Howards End has one of the most unforgettable openings in film history. Through a soft summer twilight a woman walks slowly, familiarly through an outer garden of bluebells. She is a beautiful woman of a certain age and palpable dignity. We can feel the freshening air stir against her skin, and we know that she belongs in the landscape, that she cherishes it. Soon she nears the open windows of a comfortably rambling country house and we know that it is hers, that the people we see through the casements in the lighted interiors are her family. She pauses, and looks in, ready to go in and join them, yet not quite. This moment in which a graceful, gentle woman is poised between oneness with the still solitude of the natural spirit of her place and the business of daily life and bustling demands of family  not only evokes the locale that will be the heart of the film, but the woman’s character as well. It also perfectly evinces the tone and central theme of one of the 20th Century’s greatest novels. We know the woman must soon go in and that a part of her is ready to do so—but that a part of her lingers, content to be outside, looking in. 

Howards End is arguably the best of the many superb works by the team of director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant who, between 1961 and Merchant's death in May 2005, made a series of films that can be described as "Merchant-Ivory" and everyone will know what you meant. Others in the top tier include Heat and Dust (1983), A Room with a View (1985), Maurice (1987), and The Remains of the Day (1993)Merchant and Ivory, who were also life partners for almost 30 years, made gloriously intelligent and beautiful high-end films with low-end budgets, and this gave them independence from studio meddling. Working sometimes with novelist—and their friend—Ruth Prawer Jhabvala as screenwriter and sometimes with other adapters, they turned to the novels of E.M. Forster and Henry James, which in addition to being fine literature also had the advantage of being out of copyright. As their reputation steadily grew, leading actors reduced their fees to work with them, knowing that they were in the hands of experts and that Oscar and other award nominations were a given. 

For awhile there was a patronizing minority view that Merchant-Ivory films were rather airless, corset-bound, period costume dramas—sort of Laura Ashley coffee table-book versions of Forster and James. Most of this reactionary dissent has deservedly waned with the years. Yes, some of the characters may wear evening gowns and Norfolk jackets, and the plots may be guided by those dependable Edwardian mainstays of inheritance, social change and family conflict, hypocrisy, and real estate. And, yes, there are subtle and exacting explorations of the nuances of changing cultural norms and manners. However, these adaptations of great literary works have more psychological heft and incisiveness in their treatment of class, social change, love, and marriage than many more recent and purportedly edgier, films.

Set in that overripe era of upheaving social currents just before WWI, the story seethes with passion, inhibitions, greed, anger, and psychic violence. As is usually the case with Forster, the tone is ironic but never condescending: it’s a matter of life and death and the characters are struggling to be free, to do the right—or at least the better—thing. The rapidly changing standards and aspirations of the classes, of women, of gender roles, and marriage are examined through the lens of the upper-middle-class, rather Continental, well-educated, somewhat bohemian Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen (Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter) and the family of the more prosperous and hide-bound Wilcoxes (Redgrave and Anthony Hopkins). On a visit to the Wilcoxes' country home the blithe Helen falls for the Wilcoxes' youngest son, an affair that ends badly. Later, when the Wilcoxes take a pied-a-terre opposite the Schlegels' London townhouse, sensible Margaret becomes a good friend to the ailing Mrs. Wilcox, who leaves her estate, Howards End, to Margaret—a bequest the Wilcoxes, callously closing ranks, choose to ignore. As fate would have it, though, Mr. Wilcox eventually becomes completely captivated by Margaret and to his children's horror, proposes to her—and to the chagrined surprise of the Schlegels, Margaret accepts.

It’s difficult not to feel that Howards End represents a kind of filmmaking that now seems too often missing—nuanced, well-written, and filled with complex roles, particularly for women. The film serves the essence of Forster by taking as its core the 1910 novel’s famous epigraph,"Only connect." Forster is one of the greatest writers of women; especially for his time he can be viewed as an extraordinary proto-feminist. He understood the trap that women were in—the difficulties they faced with having few choices, the external dynamics that could ensue from those choices, the social and economic risks of independence. Thompson’s Margaret is one of her greatest performances: she makes us feel how such a kind, intelligent, strong woman could feel almost like an outsider in the defining events of her life. Redgrave is luminous as Mrs. Wilcox and, with Hopkins, leads a cast which is—as is so often true of a Merchant-Ivory project—an exceptional and memorable ensemble.

Howards End received nine Oscar nominations, including best picture, director, cinematographer and acting nominations for Redgrave and Emma Thompson, who won along with Jhabvala’s script and Luciana Arrighi and Ian Whittaker’s art direction and set decoration. It also won two BAFTAs and the 45th anniversary prize at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival.

In May, Vanessa Redgrave and director James Ivory, along with Charles S. Cohen, were on hand for the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the release of Howards End, marked by a screening of the new 4K restoration of the film. Cohen acquired the Merchant Ivory Library, which includes 21 films and nine documentaries, with the intention to restore and re-release the collection as part of Cohen Film Collection. It is the first film from the Merchant Ivory Library acquisition to have been restored and re-released. This important work was done from the original camera negative and magnetic soundtrack held at the archive of the George Eastman Museum, with a 5.1 audio track restoration by Audio Mechanics, and color grading by Deluxe Restoration under the supervision of Ivory and cinematographer Tony Pierceā€Roberts. The digital restoration was completed by Cineric Portugal. Ivory, Thompson, and Redgrave are currently discussing the film in a number of interviews, film panels, and forums. Howards End opened at the Paris Theatre and Film Forum in New York on Aug. 26 and Laemmle’s Royal in Los Angeles on Sept. 2. Cohen Media Group plans to show the film at several of the original theaters that first screened the movie in 1992, before expanding distribution to other markets.

Reader Comments (1)

Howards End provides more than enough in the way of production values-impeccable set decoration, elaborate costumes, beautiful locations and exquisite cinematography-to keep its primary audience entertained.

December 2, 2017 | Unregistered Commenteradrain smith

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