Howards End: Criterion Collection Blu-ray ReviewOctober 29, 2009
With a 40-plus year run resulting in over 30 motion pictures, Merchant Ivory productions is best known for period pieces emphasizing award winning sets, cinematography and adapted screenplays. For my viewing preferences, these facets were rarely compelling enough to make a movie worth sitting all the way through such that the thought of taking in a back-to-back marathon of their catalog is not something I would wish upon an enemy. The independent film company did hit their stride in the early 1990's with the one-two punch of Howards End (1992) and Remains of the Day (1993) both starring Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins. The former garnered Oscars for Best Actress (Thompson), Art/Set Design and Screenplay and is now brought to Blu-ray by Criterion.
Based on E. M. Forester's novel of the same name, Howards End is set against the backdrop of Edwardian England where two families highlight the clash of values within the decaying social system. The Wilcoxes are rich (gaining their wealth through capitalist ventures) and for the most part conservative having no interest in impending societal changes. They wish to remain insulated from the poor and under-educated lower class while maintaining their level of affluence, not to mention overall snobbery. The Schlegels in comparison are far more congenial and idealistic engaging in philosophical discussions about socio-economic upheavals and displaying concern for those socially below them even when not in their best interest.
A physical and thematic presence throughout is "Howards End" (the modest English country home from which the book/movie takes its namesake) willed to Margret Schlegel by Ruth Wilcox on her deathbed, a decision that the remaining Wilcoxes disregard without the intended recipient ever being the wiser. Through a number of plot turns, Margaret marries the financially savvy but emotionally callous widower, Henry Wilcox, creating a rift between her and younger sister Helen who passionately takes up the cause of "the poor" and finds herself impregnated out of wedlock (a definite social stigma of the time). Through a final twist of irony following an unintentional death that shakes the foundations of both families (though in vastly different ways), the coveted house is bequeathed to the Schlegels though I do not think you would exactly call it a happy ending (or even a climactic one for that matter).
Plot developments have never been the saving grace of Merchant Ivory films, and I will be the first to admit that I do not have the skill to synopsize the story well enough to prevent it from sounding like another dry period piece. Thankfully the outstanding performances are the driving force precluding Howards End from being another beautiful but tedious production. There really is not a bad acting turn among the ensemble cast but standouts include Vanessa Redgrave whose haunting performance as Ruth Wilcox is outright passionate and humble compared to the rest of her family, Anthony Hopkins as overly proper and reticent to evolve Henry Wilcox, Helena Bonham Carter as well intentioned but painfully impetuous Helen Schlegel and Emma Thompson as somewhat flighty, philosophically inspired Margret acting as a healing bridge between the two families.
In my opinion, producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and crew rarely got everything right in a single film (though Remains of the Day manages to contend with Howards' success I think the whole production team was in the zone, if only for a short time). When you add in Tony Pierce-Roberts' picturesque camera work (many shots look like they could be paintings), Richard Robbins' emotionally evocative score, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's concise screenplay plus the impeccable costume/set design on top of the hypnotic acting, Howards End is an illustration of the often commendable parts of the Merchant Ivory game plan gelling together to prove period pieces can be sumptuous cinematic treats.
Criterion's presentation of Howards End on Blu-ray is not razor sharp by modern high-def standards due to the use of soft focus during shooting, but the director approved and cinematographer supervised 1080p transfer is guaranteed to thrill fans. Most obvious from the opening scene is the gorgeous saturation of naturalistic hues that imbue every shot (though the use of haunting pastel colored flowers most notable in the midnight walk scene balances quite nicely). Since much of the breathtaking cinematography and visual composition relies on precise lighting choices, we get a rock solid contrast that equally supports the bright and dark extremes of the imagery.
The biggest compliment to bestow on this HD effort is that it looks exceedingly film-like, and what more can an early 20th century period piece aspire to? Fine object detail will not blow you away (again due to shooting style) but overall detail is impressive and a nice upgrade from standard-def. Per the company's track record, no excessive digital tampering is evident with a consistent layer of grain throughout that lends to the cinematic feel with no dirt, scratches or debris to be found. Considering this past year's competition, I cannot say this is the absolute best Blu-ray image Criterion has produced but its no slouch and very worthy of your attention.
As much as I will praise the video, the English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix garners comparable accolades. I really was not expecting, composer and longtime Merchant/Ivory collaborator, Richard Robbins' score to come through so stirringly, but it grabs you from the opening scene with classical romantic themed strings and horns that fill your surround setup and admirably compliment the superb visuals. Discerning dialog is not an issue, even with a totally British cast, and the rears also demonstrate nice ambient touches such as scenes in the department store, train station or wedding party where the mix of disparate conversations and environmental noises meld together in a very nice soundscape. Optional English (SDH) subtitles are included.
All the extras from the 2005 Criterion produced DVD are included plus a new entry with Ivory giving a tribute to his deceased partner, Merchant. All supplements are AVC encoded, with modest high-def level bitrates, but only the new piece and the two specifically recorded for the previous DVD are actually of HD quality (though the rest have decently watchable video). Per expectations, a booklet is included with an essay from film critic Kenneth Turan.
Building Howards End (42:36, HD) While we do not get a commentary track, this well fleshed out documentary will have to do. Interview footage from Merchant and Ivory, Helena Bonham Carter, Anthony Hopkins plus costume and production designers are interspersed with background footage from filming. It is refreshing to not have dry banter from the main collaborators, as while they do not outright bicker, their decade's long friendship allows moments where minor snapping occurs and some talking over each other. There is much interesting reminisces about casting and on set anecdotes that make this a "must watch" for fans.
The Design of Howards End (9:57, HD) Culled from the same footage as the primary supplement, the costume and production designer give background on their work with Merchant/Ivory productions and in particular Howards End. Considering their efforts are integral to the success of the production, these tidbits have many moments of interest.
James Ivory on Ismail Merchant (12:11, HD) Newly recorded exclusively for this Blu-ray edition, the director gives a loving reminiscence of Ismail Merchant who was his partner and friend for a good chunk of his life and sadly passed away in 2005.
The Wandering Company (49:37) Originally produced in 1984 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Merchant Ivory productions, the 50ish minute feature includes input from Merchant, Ivory, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, designers and a number of actors. It drives home the difference between Merchant's work as a procurer of finances and a general "get it done" guy with Ivory being more the artistic force behind the films. A lot of footage is included from earlier films that do not entice me any more than before but the behind the scenes info is very intriguing.
Behind the Scenes (4:31) A promotional featurette from 1992 that is only a step above fluff.
Theatrical Trailer (2:05) Trailer that nicely captures the feel of the film and surprisingly gives away a good bit of the plot for those not having read the book.
As stated, I am by no means a Merchant/Ivory fan with much of the team's output being what gives dialog driven historical pieces a bad name. But I will admit when something works and Howards End is the pinnacle of the decade's long partnership between the acclaimed producer and director plus their longtime associates covering script, cinematography, soundtrack and design. All these elements conspired with ensemble acting to make a masterful film that transcends its roots as a mere "period piece."
To repeat what has become the HD clichι for catalog titles, this film has absolutely never looked better on home video and rivals its theatrical exhibition. Criterion nails both the Blu-ray audio and video and provides a supplemental package that while not the most comprehensive turns in a commendable effort. As a fan of Howards End since its theatrical release, I am thrilled to own it in such a great high-def package.
- Robert Searle
Shop for Howards End: Criterion Collection on Blu-ray at Amazon.com.
Browse all Amazon.com Blu-ray pre-orders
Howards End (Criterion Collection)
November 03, 2009
5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio