Howards End (Blu-ray)
Directed by James Ivory
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 142 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
MSRP: $ 39.99
Release Date: November 3, 2009
Review Date: October 25, 2009
In James Ivory’s Howards End, as in several of his other classy film projects (A Room With a View, Maurice, and The Bostonians, to name a few), we find ourselves in Edwardian London with the usual mix of social classes, the beginnings of the women's movement stirring, and the comfy, cozy world of stuffy British aristocracy beginning to crumble. These productions are always exemplified by their stunning period detail, and Howards End is certainly no exception. Sets, costumes, props in stupefying numbers (antique cars, Christmas ornaments, even umbrellas), all combine to give the film the very feel of stately, stifled London society. The story adapted from the E. M. Forster book requires this elaborate detail and certainly lives up to it.
Two well-to-do families in 1912 London, the millionaire Wilcoxes and the less wealthy Schlegels, have paths that seem star-crossed. It begins with the mistaken engagement of flirty and vivacious Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham Carter) to the Wilcox's youngest son (Joseph Bennett). After that tangle is straightened out, it takes no time for the families to become linked again, this time by the friendship between Mrs. Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave) and the eldest Schlegel daughter Margaret (Emma Thompson). After the death of Mrs. Wilcox, Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins) begins courting Margaret. The two families seem predestined to have their fates and fortunes linked inseparably.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's script doesn't stint on the subplots either. There is the arrogant and unlikable eldest Wilcox son Charles (James Wilby) who mistrusts the Schlegels' every move. There is the struggling lower class clerk Leonard Bast (Samuel West) and his corpulent, vulgar wife Jacky (Nicola Duffett) who come into the orbits of the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels in several somewhat surprising ways. So the mixture of the main themes and the secondary plots combine to produce one of the most richly complex stories in the Forster canon.
Performances couldn't be more accurate. Every actor in the cast does superlative work, from stars in smallish parts like Vanessa Redgrave to heretofore unknown players like Nicola Duffett and Samuel West. These latter two actors are absolutely stunning, alternately gross and pathetic so that we care so very much what happens to them. Of the leading players, Emma Thompson gives the most rock solid performance, full of the controlled fire that intelligent ladies of the period must have constantly possessed simmering beneath a surface of socially acceptable refinement. Hopkins also shines as the stuffy and wooden head of the Wilcox clan, grasping greedily to the status he feels he’s entitled to knowing full well his era is passing. Helena Bonham Carter as the middle Schlegel child Helen balances some early droll comedy with a later fiery disposition once she feels an injustice has occurred.
As is usual in the Merchant-Ivory pictures, gorgeous photography (here gloriously widescreen) makes for many breathtaking moments. Likewise Richard Robbins' achingly acute musical score neatly catches the feelings of the characters. If the story lacks some of the raging inner torment of Maurice, it still registers its effects in many funny and dramatic scenes. Director James Ivory loves to focus on small, seemingly arbitrary moments (like eating pastry at a wedding, shopping for Christmas gifts, a chase in the rain to recover an umbrella). As a master of capturing the mundane and making it interesting, he has no peer.
The ending of the picture is a bit unsatisfying, as if things were wrapped up quickly to get feature concluded, and coincidences do seem to pile up a bit near the end, but these are trifles. Howards End is a grand and gratifying excursion into England's past with a cluster of fascinating people on display and is not to be missed.
The film’s theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is delivered in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Rapturously colorful with an image completely free from age-related artifacts like dirt or scratches, this is the finest the movie has ever looked on home video. There’s a slight softness inherent in the photography, perhaps to suggest a long ago era, which makes the image a hair less than razor sharp, but there won’t be any complaints about the clarity and detail in these images, complete with natural film grain. It’s a beautiful high definition disc. The film has been divided into 24 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix will surprise you with the widely extended soundstage for Richard Robbins’ exquisite score. The surround channels have also been used for subtle ambient effects that never announce themselves blatantly but rather make their presence known throughout in soft but effective ways.
“Building Howards End” is a nicely comprehensive behind-the-scenes documentary featuring in-depth interviews with the film’s producer, director, co-star Helena Bonham Carter, the costume designer, and the production designer. It runs for 42 ½ minutes and is in 1080i.
“The Design of Howards End” spends 9 additional minutes with production designer Luciana Arrighi and costume designer Jenny Beavan as they talk about their work for the film. With both women, we see sketches of their work intercut with clips from the finished film. This featurette is presented in 1080i.
“The Wandering Company” is a documentary produced in 1984 about the first twenty years of collaboration between Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Interviews with all three plus a generous helping of film clips from their works (many not overly familiar) make this a valuable documentary. It’s in 1080i and runs for 49 ½ minutes.
James Ivory speaks lovingly about his partnership with Ismail Merchant in this 1080p featurette which runs for 12 ½ minutes.
“Behind the Scenes” is the film’s original 1992 EPK featurette with star interviews and quotes from the production team. This 1080i vignette runs 4 ½ minutes.
The film’s original theatrical trailer runs for 2 minutes in 1080p.
The enclosed 15-page booklet contains cast and crew lists, a lovely selection of color stills from the film, and a glowing appreciation of the movie by critic Kenneth Turan.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the chapters that go along with the film. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
4.5/5 (not an average)
One of the great book-to-film transcriptions of the last half century, Howards End makes a miraculously beautiful Blu-ray disc. It cannot come more highly recommended!