Criterion Review: Howards End A Timely Triumph

"Live in fragments no longer," proclaims the heroine Margaret Schlegel in the E. M. Forster novel Howards End. Pure artistry defines this 1992 film from director James Ivory, which is as beautiful and timely 17 years later as the day it was released. Dealing with the problems of emotional connectivity in modern life, as well as the damaging effects of lies long lain dormant and the certainty of fate, Howards End is long overdue for a revival.

Two families seem inescapably interconnected as Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson) befriends a dying woman (Vanessa Redgrave), and after her death becomes engaged to her husband (Anthony Hopkins), though her sister (Helena Bonham Carter) disapproves. There's a world of plot that precedes and follows such a meager explanation of the film, but that is the beauty of Howards End. The plot is unhurried in a way that allows for slipping fully into the world of Howards End, with the deep connections drawing the characters ever closer even as they struggle against inevitable fate.

There is precision here, a detailed account of longing for connection, for a better place in life, seeking happiness or at least contentment. Characters are given the time to show themselves, time to develop, a feat relatively unknown in this day and age as high drama and amplification are given precedence over careful construction or subtlety. Helena Bonham Carter is all impudence and fire, leaving Emma Thompson to counterbalance with peacemaking and heartbreaking grace. Anthony Hopkins turns in one of his finest performances, as isolated and mysterious as Vanessa Redgrave is childlike and luminous. Samuel West conveys hidden depths with every slouched, sloping shuffle in his gait, and forever endears himself in equal measure as he frustrates with his ingratitude toward those who would help him.

Criterion's Blu-ray release of the film is an excellent gift to those who have waited for it, and the Blu-ray imagery is crystalline and flawless. From the soaring vistas of the British countryside to the lushly overgrown Howards End itself, each detail is rendered with remarkable clarity. The image has been cleaned up in a new high-definition transfer under the direction of the cinematographer himself.

The storied history of Britain is a driving force, the Victorian era still a recent memory as the Edwardian time period is in full effect. The class system in England is firmly entrenched in the very existence of the country; at one point Helen is chided for taking too sentimental an interest in the poor. Ismail Merchant, in Building "Howards End," one of the special featurettes, notes his belief that Howards End is a metaphor for England itself, being handed down bit by bit to the lower classes. In this special segment, Director James Ivory and his cohorts explain the triumphs and difficulties encountered in bringing the film from the page to the big screen.

In a period piece as fully complete as this one it is a rare treat to see a production designer so lovingly lauded as Luciana Arrighi, but along with costume designer Jenny Beaven, she is given a special segment, The Design of "Howards End," devoted entirely to the exploration of the look of the film. Considering that the film had a meager budget of only eight million dollars, what Arrighi did with the money is astounding. In the segment, Arrighi is in her element, fluidly describing the ins and outs of production, allowing a rare look at how an artist works to bring a sense of intentionality and care to the process of filmmaking. Costume design is no less important than tone and setting, and the joy of that development is evident in Jenny Beaven's work as well; it is evident that the experience was an important and impacting one for all involved.

Along with the original theatrical trailer, also included is a nearly hour-long documentary on the Merchant Ivory production company, which traces the longtime partnership between producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Among the other items only available on the Blu-ray release is an appreciation of the irascible Ismail Merchant by his longtime collaborator James Ivory, as well as a stunning essay by Kenneth Turan. Turan's understanding of the film transcends mere words, instead elevating the movie to the level at which it must be appreciated, as a whole and complete master work by individuals at the height of their creative powers. The praise heaped upon the film is deserved from first frames to final credits, and Turan understands and elucidates not only the broad sweeping themes, but the minutiae as well.

This release is stuffed with enough to sate even the most rabid Howards End fanatic. Howards End is comprised of an excellent story, a phenomenal cast, and the most beautiful of surroundings. We are transported, body and soul, to a world that is not our own, a world that feels ruddy and lived in completely. Whether you've loved the film since 1992, or have only just heard of it, the Criterion Blu-ray release is the perfect opportunity to explore the magical world in its entirety.

Howards End is available now from Criterion.