The brilliant film-making triumvirate of producer, Ismail Merchant, director, James Ivory and screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala marked their 30th anniversary in picture-making with Howards End (1992); a sublime masterpiece about the waning English Edwardian aristocracy. If only more costume dramas sparkled with such eclectic vibrancy, were as astutely nuanced and as precisely crafted as this, there would be more costume dramas being made today. It is no overstatement to suggest Howards End kicked off a minor renaissance for literary classics coming to the big screen; a project for which Merchant could find virtually no American backers, except Orion Pictures, offering more ‘moral support’ than financing, and, leaving the enterprising producer to seek his moneys elsewhere; roughly forty-five percent coming from a consortium of Japanese investors culled by one admirer of Merchant-Ivory’s previous efforts (1987’s Maurice a huge critical and financial success in Japan) with the rest cobbled together from Merchant’s personal contacts in Britain. Based on E.M. Forester’s intellectual deconstruction of Britain’s rigid caste system, Howards End – the stately country respite owned by the affluent Wilcox family – is Forster’s metaphor for the demise of an England forcibly divested of its once seemingly indestructible ‘ruling class’ sovereignty, overtaken by the gaining attitudes and financial independence of its middling and lower ranks. As in Forester’s novel, Howards End – the movie – concludes with this bucolic oasis, built to cater to refined tastes, inherited by the illegitimate son of a deceased, London-based insurance clerk.
It should be noted that apart from his own literary idealism, Forester harbored virtually no real passion for the lower classes; bent to suggest that if only these self-imposed barriers of class distinction were abolished, the social indifferences facing the nation could finally melt away to reveal the truest moral integrity of its peoples. In adapting the novel for the screen, writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala would jettison James Ivory’s favorite scene; Margaret Schlegel’s leap from a moving automobile after the callous Charles Wilcox has run over a cat, refusing to go back to see if the animal has, in fact, been mortally wounded. According to director Ivory, this scene was filmed, though almost immediately discarded. Initially, Prawer Jhabvala brought Howards End to Ismail Merchant’s attention. Ivory had read the novel twice in his youth, but found nothing to consider it might make a good movie, while Merchant later openly admitted, “it was very slow going for me!” In the final days of the editing process, Ivory confessed his belief the picture lacked something; a sentiment concurred by the screenwriter. “Well…” Ruth reportedly told him, “It is what it is.” And yet, how utterly wrong two artists can be about their own work. From the luxury of hindsight, Howards End is perhaps Merchant-Ivory’s greatest achievement; a place for first, tied only with the release of their subsequent farewell to period costume drama; another visually arresting cerebral masterpiece - The Remains of the Day (1993). Both movies evoke an articulate uber-wit and sophistication to thoroughly contradict the budgetary restrictions imposed on each at the time of their making.
Howards End was made for around $8 million, to put this sum into perspective, roughly what it costs today to shoot a sixty second Super Bowl commercial. Even in 1992, the average movie budget in America was twice as much; Ismail Merchant keeping very tight reins on his investor’s dollars, photographing the entire movie on location and concentrating his hard-won moneys on hiring exactly the right cast and crew to flesh out the period details. First to be cast was Anthony Hopkins, chiefly upon a recommendation made to Ivory by actor, James Wilby (who had played the titular and tragically flawed title character in Maurice, and would costar again in Howards End as Charles Wilcox). We must recall: in 1992, Anthony Hopkins was all but an unknown quantity in America, having squandered his early start in the international picture-making biz by the late seventies, suffering a terrible tumble into alcoholism. But now, Hopkins seemed rife for a comeback and on the verge of rediscovery by the public, having just completed principle photography on Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, ironically, a movie also being made for the beleaguered Orion Pictures. As Ivory was involved in final edits on The Slaves of New York, working only a stone’s throw from where Hopkins was doing dialogue redubs for the aforementioned picture, Ivory simply elected to pass along a copy of the script via a mutual go-between; thereby undercutting all the red tape of having to consult with agents. Almost immediately, Hopkins warmed to Howards End and without hesitation agreed to partake.
Ivory also elected to hire Helena Bonham Carter for the pivotal role of the impetuous Helen Schlegel. Bonham Carter had appeared to solid effect as the ingénue, Lucy Honeychurch in Merchant-Ivory’s A Room With A View (1985), despite, by her own admission, being in “my own Foresterian muddle. In fact, I wasn’t even all that interested in getting the job…which I suppose is a real lesson in life. You walk in another direction and the part comes to you.” Owing to her success in that part Bonham Carter also found herself thrust into a cameo in Maurice; a frantic last minute substitute for a walk-on part yet to be cast. “I liked that she was all action, impulse, passionate and pretty flawed,” Bonham Carter later explained about Helen Schlegel, her greatly expanded role in Howards End; “Utterly thoughtless, but nevertheless quite appealing. I always find fanaticism funny. It’s disturbing too, but sometimes when people are so single-minded, I find it humorous on some level.” And indeed, Bonham Carter brings a sort of deliciously light screwball element to Helen Schlegel; a marginally obtuse quality, rife for the polite wink and nudge; the Edwardian’s equivalent to today’s slap n’ tickle.
The pivotal role of Helen’s sister, Margaret, had yet to be cast when Merchant and Ivory met Emma Thompson; then, chiefly known in England as the wife of Shakespearean actor, Kenneth Branagh. Ivory recalls, “…she read from the novel rather than the script…intelligently, and I just knew I had found Margaret. There couldn’t be anyone else to do it.” Nevertheless, Ivory hesitated, perhaps owing to Thompson’s lack of cache in the business. Some time passed as the creative duo concentrated looking at other actors to fill the remaining roles. Fearful her first impression may have cooled since, Thompson sent Ivory an ardent note, in essence stating “…this is such a wonderful project, wonderful script, that my heart is in it and if you should decide to use me I will do justice to it.” That did it. Thompson was in. In retrospect, her performance dominates as the graceful centerpiece of a very intricate mobile of interlocking relationships; the actress giving an almost lyrical performance as the intellectually stimulated and outspoken Margaret; all evidence to the contrary on Oscar night when, upon winning the Best Actress statuette presented to her by Anthony Hopkins, a very giddy Thompson gave one of the most charmingly glib acceptance speeches in more recent Academy history, in part saying “…to E.M Forster for writing Margaret Schlegel…to James Ivory for asking me to play her and to Ismail Merchant – for paying me to play her which, at this moment, seems highly unnecessary…I think I might have to give the money back…and particularly to Sir Anthony Hopkins for – like this – being the Knight of my life…”
Others in the cast were eventually culled from personal recommendations and a bit of inspired kismet. Actress, Felicity Kendell, who had appeared for Merchant-Ivory in Shakespeare Wallah (1965) suggested up-and-coming actor, Samuel West for the pivotal role of Leonard Bast; the impoverished clerk who, having taken to wife, Jacky (Nicola Duffett), a former prostitute and one-time mistress of Henry Wilcox, meets with an untimely end at Howards End. As West’s mother was Prunella Scales, an accomplished English actress in her own right, Ivory also cast Scales as the Schlegel’s pert, yet dotty, Aunt Juley. The one role not left to chance was Wilcox’s first wife, Ruth. From the beginning, Ismail Merchant had desperately wanted and sought out Vanessa Redgrave to play this part; repeatedly plying the actress with compliments and, over a period of several months, resubmitting the screenplay for her consideration. Redgrave, whose globe-trotting itinerary usually led to delays and distractions, remained noncommittal. Hence, as the time drew nearer for the start of production, she had yet to sign on the dotted line. To sweeten the deal, both Merchant and Ivory invited Redgrave to tea at the Waldorf; Ismail putting all his cards on the table. Anticipating indecision, Redgrave bluntly asked for her salary to be doubled, to which Merchant, without a moment’s hesitation, agreed. “If she had asked for the moon I would have found a way to get it for her,” Merchant later confessed, to which Ivory, shaking his head, simply added, “…a very bad precedent!”
One of the hallmarks of a Merchant-Ivory production is its meticulous preplanning; often months in advance and usually long before even the moneys have been accrued to begin making any definite plans. Indeed, Ismail Merchant would make one of his most fortuitous decisions by adding Production Designer Luciana Arrighi to his roster of ‘behind-the-camera’ talents. Arrighi, who possessed an unimpeachable eye for elegance and refinement would describe how, two years before actually being hired to partake on Howards End she received a telephone call: “My name is Ismail Merchant…it is serendipity that we work together…” Arrighi, who was working on another project at the time, but was thoroughly charmed by Merchant’s bombast, and, had adored the novel as a young girl, began casually scouting locations in her spare time, mostly on her own, keeping a mental scrapbook of the logistical possibilities for Howards End. The picture’s seamless continuity, the cobbling together of various locations to recreate Forster’s fictional world, included stints at Fortnum & Mason Department Store, Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, and Peppard Cottage, a flat-fronted country estate with peaked porches and dormers, uncannily reminiscent of Forster’s own Rooksnest, on which the author had based his descriptions of the fictional Howards End. It helped that Roger and Caroline Shapland, the current owners of the cottage were also Arrighi’s friends; the family remaining steadfast in their quarters at the back of the estate, allowing the film-makers their ‘occupancy’ of the property for several months; even affording them the luxury to redress, repaint and properly age whole portions of the house’s interior. “You get the (Johannes) Vermeer lighting just right,” Arrighi explains, “No sets, which is also cheaper, but you also get that look of the present, subtler conditions brought on by a manipulation of the natural light.”
On Howards End, Arrighi worked closely with Costume Designers Jenny Beavan and John Bright whose association with Merchant-Ivory dated all the way back to 1984’s The Bostonians and included an Oscar win for A Room With A View (1987). Beavan instantly got on with Arrighi, their tastes and temperaments in perfect symbiosis. However, she was most impressed with the way actor, Anthony Hopkins could put on his various attire, immediately to ‘inhabit’ his character as by some magical osmosis. Meanwhile, Arrighi and Art Director John Ralph set about creating a slightly unkempt rural glamor from the natural landscape. One aspect in need of virtually no embellishment was the forest of bluebells located not far from the cottage; an exotic carpet, in tandem with the superb interplay of shadow and sunlight filtering through the trees, captured by cinematographer, Tony Pierce-Roberts in registering shades of Palatinate, Federal and Majorelle blue for the scene where Leonard Bast suffers his agrarian daydream. To achieve a ‘look’ for Howards End unlike anything Merchant-Ivory had yet attempted, Pierce-Roberts switched from the company’s tried and true Fujifilm to a then newer brand of Kodak-Eastman stock, exhibiting ‘punchier’ colors. Pierce-Roberts also elected to photograph Howards End in Super 35mm from which 70mm widescreen prints could be struck. These alterations lent the picture an expansive lushness; outdoorsy verdure, tastefully contrasted with the distinctly muted colors employed throughout the various interiors, typifying that claustrophobic bric-a-brac of period Edwardian opulence.
Ruth Prawler Jhabvala’s screenplay for Howards End is a masterclass in structured drama; the way she builds tension and comedy in tandem, shifting her focus ever so slightly on the intertwining associations involved in this clash of castes; usually, centralized on pairs of people within a scene, pitted against, or at least playing off, other pairs similarly situated. While we can sincerely doff our caps to James Ivory’s direction, meticulously paced and later, for his input in the editing process, it is from Jhabvala’s carefully contrived wit (never appearing as such) that the real bloodline of Howards End pumps life-giving arterial nourishment into the very soul of these characters; the picture enduring beyond a series of mere ‘pretty scenes’, however expertly stitched together. Ivory always considered the character of Margaret Schlegel as Forester’s alter ego putting forth the author’s ideologies. To offset this tedium, Jhabvala’s script also allows Margaret her more intimate thoughts with Helen; the pair frequently finishing each other’s sentences. Because all of the actors in Howards End are seasoned professionals, one can easily forget how budgetary restrictions precluded all of them to gather for more than one complete run-through of the entire script. “I’m not one of those directors who plots an entire film in shots from beginning to end in my head,” Ivory explains, “I take actors concerns under advisement and I listen. What they bring to the scene is really their gift to the film and I only intercede if I think they’re headed in the wrong direction. If I can’t cajole or get them to see it my way, then I find a way to shoot the scene so I can get rid of what I don’t want in the editing process and still preserve the integrity of the moment. But really, it’s about letting the actor find themselves in the part and then letting them run with that assessment. A lot of wonderful things can and do happen when you let things develop on their own.”
Howards End begins with one of the most memorable main title sequences in recent screen history; a disturbing clash from Richard Robbins’ well-modulated underscore, the alphabet sporadically appearing to spell out ‘Howards End’ in decorative jet-black calligraphy against a half-lit background; the screen parting down the middle as Robbins’ score diminishes into a languid piano forte and we see the heavy grey-blue pleated train of Ruth Wilcox’s evening dress lazily dragged through the tall grasses that surround Howards End. Tony Pierce-Roberts’ luminous cinematography, in the wane of twilight, gives us the lay of the land surrounding this pivotal property around which so much of the plot’s interplay and tragedy will soon come to revolve. Removed from her family; husband, Henry, daughter, Evie (Jemma Redgrave), sons, the elder, Charles (James Wilby) and Paul (Joseph Bennett), Charles’ fiancée, Dolly (Suzie Linderman) and their guest, Helen Schlegel, Ruth absorbs the quieter sights, sounds and fragrances of this country retreat; inherited from her family and made a part of her dowry in marriage to Henry, although he does not own it per say.
The Wilcoxes are of the upper strata. Charles in particular has adopted his father’s rather priggish air of entitlement. Surely, he will inherit when the time comes. For now, Charles must be contented with Dolly, or rather, moderately endure a woman who likely suited him once, but now, as with the rest of the family, is only to be tolerated with gritty contempt. After their ‘after dinner’ parlor games, Paul leads Helen to a nearby secluded spot out near the adjacent garage where she permits him the indiscretion of making love to her. Remember, this is Edwardian England; so passion is straight-jacketed to a few well-timed kisses about the nape. Misinterpreting his intensions, Helen sends a telegram to Margaret professing their love affair. Margaret, along with their brother, Tibby (Adrian Ross Magenty) is staying with their Aunt Juley who finds the prospect of such unapologetic amour very unladylike to say the least. Alas, by dawn’s early light things look much different to Paul. He neither desires to continue the affair nor even pretend what little there was meant anything better than a momentary diversion. Helen is unmoved. Evidently, she has been down this primrose path before. Realizing her telegram will likely inspire Margaret to come to Howards End, Helen sends another to explain the current situation. Alas, this follow-up arrives too late to stop Aunt Juley from pursuing the matter, mistaking Charles for Paul and thinking he is on the cusp of proposing marriage to her niece. When Charles crudely admonishes the pair as ‘damned fools’, he also incurs Aunt Juley’s ire. She arrives at Howards End in a flurry of petticoats to comfort and take Helen away from this shameless debacle.
Time passes. Helen appears at a recital inside London’s Ethical Hall – a lecture on ‘music and meaning’ also attended by Leonard Bast. Although neither is aware of the other at first, Helen inadvertently inveigles their ‘cute meet’ when she accidentally takes Leonard’s umbrella and hurries home before the end of the concert, forcing Leonard to scurry along in a downpour to retrieve it. Leonard tails Helen to Wickham Place, the Schlegel’s ancestral home; unsettled by the frankness of both Margaret and Helen as they make attempts to extend to him all their social graces. Realizing they have overpowered him, Margaret extends her calling card to Leonard before sending him on his way. His return home, to a decidedly less than affluent London neighborhood, is attended by his wife, Jacky, eager to please and patiently awaiting his return. Jacky’s playful sexuality is more of a distraction. Regrettably, it has also alienated Leonard from the rest of his family. Evidently, even the poor have standards. Leonard is a poet and a scholar, trapped in a dead end clerk’s position at the Porphyrian insurance company. To escape the monotony of his job, Leonard reads literature smuggled in under his bookkeeping ledgers and openly plays silly little tricks to amuse himself, like balancing his ink pen on the tip of his nose.
Given the rocky start the Schlegels have had with the Wilcoxes, Margaret nevertheless endeavors to befriend Ruth while Helen is away at Aunt Juley’s. Meanwhile, Charles and Dolly are wed. Ruth is enchanted by Margaret; her refreshing frankness on all matters and her willingness to let bygones be bygones. Ruth is in frail health and seemingly left for long stretches alone – and lonely – while her husband takes care of matters of business. In this interim, Margaret and Ruth establish an almost sisterly kinship; Margaret inviting Ruth to one of her luncheons attended by some of the more progressive literati and politically-minded intellectuals. Ruth inadvertently casts a pall on their conversation when she suggests she is only too happy not to have the vote, but rectifies her position by illustrating that all war could be averted if only the women went off to war, thus leaving no one at home for the menfolk to defend or return to at war’s end. As the Christmas holidays approach, Margaret elects to help the greatly enfeebled Ruth with her shopping duties. Informed by Margaret of a new city ordinance to cast them from their beloved Wickham Place, Ruth reminisces about Howards End, describing it in great detail. Her vivid recollections are followed by the impromptu decision to make a pilgrimage by train this very evening; a trip narrowly averted when Margaret does not immediately show the same level of interest, then delayed when Henry and Evie unexpectedly meet Ruth and Margaret at the depot, thus indefinitely quashing her plans.
Flash forward again; Ruth, hospitalized and dying, bequeaths Howards End to Margaret in a handwritten will. Learning of this endowment, Henry gathers the family at Howards End to discuss their options. Indeed, he does not want the Schlegels to occupy the house, not because his family would prefer to remain there themselves, but more on the principle Margaret’s ‘class’ has no business gaining absolute control as the landowner. After some debate, Evie seizes Ruth’s will and burns it in the kitchen fireplace; the family sequestered into silence on the matter forever more…or so it would seem. Within a few weeks, Henry and Evie arrive at Wickham Place, guiltily to offer Margaret a ‘token’ perfume bottle Ruth supposedly would have wanted her to have as a remembrance of their friendship. Unaware of how much more this deceased matriarch would have wished for her, Margaret accepts this lowly offering, though Henry is displeased and made to feel even guiltier by Margaret’s overt graciousness. Evie is clearly uncomfortable by this betrayal of her mother’s final wishes. Not long thereafter, Henry begins to court Margaret. While she accepts his kindness and invitations to publicly dine with Evie and her fiancée, Percy Cahill (Mark Payton), the conversation reaches an awkward impasse when Margaret inadvertently strikes a nerve by inquiring whether Henry might let Howards End to the Schlegels while they continue to search for a more permanent residence. Lying to Margaret about the house, presumably already occupied and therefore unavailable, Henry offers instead to act as an agent to secure another house on Margaret’s behalf. Alas, time will prove his intentions more affixed to possessing something greater in return: Margaret’s hand in marriage.
It is hardly a bargain, as Henry Wilcox’s staunch conservatism flies in the face of the more outspoken Margaret’s free-spirited resolve. Nevertheless, Margaret recognizes there are sacrifices to be made for the comforts of her own family. Meanwhile Jacky Bast, having discovered Margaret’s calling card in Leonard’s coat pocket, arrives to confront the woman who may or may not be plotting to ‘steal’ her husband. Margaret and Helen are mildly amused by this turn of events. This only causes Jacky to become more sullen and wounded as she storms out of the house. Desiring to improve Leonard’s lot in life, Margaret and Helen learn from Henry the Porphyrian is heavily mortgaged and presumably sure to fail. Taking their advice, Leonard leaves the company prematurely but proves incapable of securing another position. He and Jacky sink deeper into poverty while Margaret and Henry prepare to wed at Henry’s castle in Shropshire. Helen is incensed by their ostentatiousness. Indeed, Margaret appears to have swung to the other side, sacrificing her ideals for position and money. Helen crashes Margaret and Henry’s wedding with the Basts in tow, demanding something be done at once. Jacky gets drunk and inadvertently recognizes Henry as the lover she took to bed as a prostitute in Italy; an amusement turned sour when Margaret makes a similar connection, gets her newlywed husband to admit to as much, but decides to forgive him his past peccadillos.
Margaret informs Helen, Henry and she will do nothing more for the Basts. They are not worthy of their help. While Jacky continues to recover from her stupor at a nearby hotel, Leonard and Helen begin an affair; their passion boiling over into an unexpected pregnancy Helen is determined to keep secret from both families by exiling herself to Germany. After some months of desperately trying to make contact, Margaret agrees to meet Helen at Howards End where all of the Schlegel’s belongings are being stored since the wedding. Margaret drives out to the house with Henry and Dolly, only to discover a very pregnant Helen waiting on the front porch. Margaret convinces Henry and Dolly to return to town while she comforts her sister’s shame and makes the attempt to unearth the identity of this unborn child’s father. Meanwhile, Leonard is haunted by memories of their love affair while knowing absolutely nothing about the pregnancy. Endeavoring to reconnect with Helen, he makes his pilgrimage on foot, wandering through a field of bluebells to Howards End. In the meantime, Margaret endeavors to force Henry’s hand to agree Helen may remain at Howards End indefinitely; or rather, only until she gives birth to Leonard’s child. Henry refuses even this small kindness, presumably as a blemish on his own family honor, and Margaret, angered by his perverse sense of chivalry, presents him with a challenge: “You had a mistress – I forgave you. My sister has had a lover – you drive her from the house. Why can you not be honest for once and say what Helen has done, I have done?”
Incensed any Schlegel, much less one about to bear the stigma of an illegitimate child, should remain on his property, Henry orders Charles to drive out in the motor and force Helen and Margaret from Howards End. Charles arrival coincides with Leonard Bast’s. Making the connection Leonard is Helen’s lover, Charles challenges Leonard on a thoroughly misguided point of honor, striking him with the back of the military sword snatched from the mantle of the fireplace. Unaware Leonard’s heart has been greatly weakened by his sojourn on foot, also his slow starvation, Charles drives Leonard against a bookcase in the parlor; the heavy shelving toppling forward, burying Leonard beneath a cacophony of books. At the informal inquest, Charles makes light of his involvement, but is arrested and tried for the crime. Knowing full and well his eldest son and heir apparent will be convicted of manslaughter and sure to spend the rest of his life in prison, a repentant Henry struggles to regain his composure. He begs for Margaret’s understanding. But only after he bequeaths Howards End to her, making the entire Wilcox clan aware of his intent, that the house remain in the joint custodianship of Margaret and Helen, where the latter will rear Leonard’s child for generations yet to follow, does Margaret superficially forgive Henry his trespasses. Dolly lets it slip about Ruth’s will and Henry, prematurely aged and nearly broken with grief, makes a final confession to his wife about Ruth’s final wishes for Howards End. The bequest having come full circle, Margaret and Henry bid Paul and Dolly farewell as they drive away in the motor, united as they gaze across the waving fields of wild flowers where Helen and Leonard’s son are blissfully at play.
In many ways, Howards End represents the pinnacle of achievement, not only for Merchant-Ivory, but a particular kind of ‘old-fashioned’ storytelling tragically out of vogue in contemporary cinema. That it should have given rise to a decade’s worth of emotionally satisfying literary adaptations, transformed into almost as good period costume dramas (The Remains of the Day 1993, Little Women 1994, Sense and Sensibility 1995, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, and Emma, both released in 1996, An Ideal Husband 1998, Anna and the King, and, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both released in 1999) is perhaps as unanticipated as the picture’s own critical and financial success; earning $25,967,000 in the U.S. alone and nominated for a slew of Academy Awards, winning three: Best Actress – Emma Thompson, Best Screenplay – Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and, Best Art Direction/Set Decoration – Luciana Arrighi, and, Ian Whitaker. Quite easily, things could have gone the other way; particularly as, in the eleventh hour of the editing process the team were informed of Orion Pictures implosion; the company in charge of the picture’s distribution having filed for Chapter Eleven bankruptcy. Mercifully, Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, two executives from Orion, made the leap to Sony Pictures, establishing another classics division at that studio. As Howards End was considered ‘an asset’ in Orion’s restructuring plan, Barker and Bernard encouraged Merchant-Ivory to persuade the company to sell back their film rights, thus affording Sony the permission to distribute Howards End in America.
Viewed from twenty-four years passed since its debut, Howards End has lost virtually nothing in its ability to captivate an audience. If anything, as witnessed from our present era in movie-making, overly saturated in darkly-themed and nimble-minded superhero and monsters dreck, Howards End today is an even more refreshingly refined anomaly in the cinema firmament. To classify it merely as ‘period drama’ is doing the picture an injustice. For although Howards End is so obviously impressing upon another time and place, entirely out of step with the crass commercialism of picture-making today, its courtly Edwardian mannerisms and mores - long since acquiring historical weight left to molder in the past - Forster’s central themes, so eloquently brought forth in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay, have nevertheless retained their perennially steadfast allure, neither faded with time nor even ever so slightly dishonored as quaint by the passage. From beginning to end, Howards End is a banquet of riches exposed in its own due time; 142 minutes of exquisitely tailored entertainment brought forth by an independent company whose tenure in the industry was undeniably built upon crafting quality under even the most restrictive budgets. “I always had just enough,” Production Designer Luciana Arrighi suggested years later, “…enough to finish what I set out to achieve without feeling the pressure to cut corners.” “I have a lot of admiration for them (Ismail and James),” concurs Helena Bonham Carter, “They made movies according to their own tastes.”
Cohen Media Group’s much anticipated 4K remaster reissue of Howards End has received the ‘gold star’ seal of approval from both cinematographer, Tony Pierce-Roberts and director, James Ivory. Head and shoulders, it is a major improvement over Criterion’s now retired Blu-ray release, exporting superior amounts of fine detail, minus the atrocious digital anomalies afflicting that aforementioned release. Gone is the disconcerting orange/copper bias previously witnessed in skin tones; hair more henna than brown. Cohen’s remastering effort is, in a word – exquisite. Compared to the Criterion release, colors have adopted a far more earthy naturalness; the lush foliage looking far less like a garish paint box whose child has gone wild with the Crayolas. It’s the subtleties we can recognize more readily now; the built-in textures of the image; minute variances in flesh and hair, also, costuming; the herring bone pattern in Mr. Wilcox’s suit or fragile refinements in Margaret Schlegel’s fine-woven lace. There are several instances where the image leans ever so slightly toward a teal bias. My recollections of seeing Howards End for the first time in the theater have dulled; perhaps, even distorted slightly from my repeat viewings of the Criterion Blu-ray that possessed a darker, moodier blue effect. The Cohen release is also considerably brighter than Criterion’s while maintaining impeccable levels of contrast, most notably during the opening titles and Ruth Wilcox’s stroll around the grounds surrounding her beloved abode. The DTS 5.1 audio satisfies; dialogue crisp and clean; Richard Robbins’ memorable score given over to an unusual intensity.
Cohen Media’s list of ‘extras’ is impressive and again, bests Criterion’s previous effort; preserving a documentary and two featurettes previously available: ‘Building Howards End, a 42 min. candid interview piece chocked full of wonderful reflections from James Ivory, Ismail Merchant, Helena Bonham Carter, Jenny Beaven and Luciana Arrigi and, far too brief at under 10 min., Designing Howards End, offering interviews from Beaven and Arrighi. There is also a lovingly crafted piece featuring James Ivory’s devoted reflections on Ismail Merchant who left us much too soon from surgical complications in 2005. “Some people you meet and part ways,” Ivory suggests, “…but others bond together on a lifelong stream. I guess you could call our relationship destiny.” Added to the mix are brand new 2016 interviews with James Ivory, and Vanessa Redgrave, a handsomely produced booklet with reflections from Ivory and an essay by John Pym and Luciana Arrighi; a fascinating audio commentary, the 2016 restoration reissue trailer and a 1992 featurette offering snippets and sound bites from cast and crew while production was underway.
Lost in transition is The Wandering Company; an almost hour-long documentary covering the first twenty odd years of Merchant Ivory Productions, capped off by their pending release of A Room With A View. Alas, a comprehensive documentary has yet to be made, covering the last two pictures in Merchant-Ivory’s fruitful alliance; Howards End, and, The Remains of the Day. We really need to give Cohen Media a much deserved nod for not only restoring Howards End to its original brilliance on home video, but also for padding out this Blu-ray release with some very comprehensive and meaningful extras. This new to Blu has obviously been produced by people who feel Howards End in their bones and have immense respect for Merchant-Ivory as a company; proof confirmed by an insert included in this release advertising the pending release of 21 Merchant-Ivory productions currently in the works, including 1984’s The Bostonians and 1987’s Maurice (two long neglected masterpieces from the company); also, 9 shorts and several documentaries. Frankly, we cannot wait for these to hit the street. As for Howards End – Cohen Media Group's care and attention paid to detail makes this one a no-brainer purchase. You must own this disc! It’s that simple. Buy today. Treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)