The 'Howards End' reissue reminds us how alive Merchant Ivory could be
Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter kill it as bourgeois sisters navigating Edwardian England in the Merchant Ivory great.
Director: James Ivory
Stars: Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins
5 (out of 5) Globes
The term “Merchant Ivory” is a misnomer. It’s the name of the film company that produced movies like “The Remains of the Day” and “Howards End.” But the two words have also been absorbed by the culture, becoming synonymous with “stuffy English period piece.” For one thing, the name — which refers to filmmakers James Ivory (who usually directed their films) and the late Ismail Merchant (who mostly only produced) — leaves out the also late Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who wrote most of their scripts. For another, they’re not even English. Ivory is American, Merchant was Indian and Jhabvala German-born. And their output ran the gamut. Their early run of films were set in India, and they nipped to the U.S. and elsewhere now and then.
But this is just being picky, pedantic. The real area of contention is the notion that their movies were stuffy. They could be. But not “Howards End,” their award-gobbling 1992 stab at E.M. Forster (their second, after “A Room with a View”). Back during its release, it was seen as prim enough to warrant a parody on “The Critic” called, natch, “Howard Stern’s End.” Seeing it again, in its new, scrubbed-up reissue, this much is certain: It moves. It’s alive. It storms through a complicated tome, juggling half a dozen key characters. More important, every frame bristles with activity: uncontainable people bustling about frames, fascinating actors saying more with copious body language than words, high drama blending with sharp (and, well, yes, tasteful) comedy. If only more costume dramas were this close to being electric.
There’s a lot of ground to cover: two families of different levels of wealth, plus a couple who’s down and out, mixing about in Edwardian England. There’s the Schlegels, chiefly Margaret (Emma Thompson) and Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) — free-spirit bourgeoisie who run afoul of the Wilcoxes, a moneyed family lorded over by the stern and remote Henry (Anthony Hopkins). The film charts as Margaret finds herself improbably courted by Henry, while Helen is drawn to Leonard (Samuel West), a self-serious clerk who falls on hard times.
It can be strange, in 2016, watching even a relatively slender novel like “Howards End” (which only runs some 302 pages) crammed into two-hours-and-change. We’re used to reveling in this New Golden Age of Television, with its stories that stretch out and fly on forever. It’s true Forster’s book might be better served as a miniseries, where plot mechanics and characters are further fleshed-out.
But this is a movie. And Team Merchant/Jhabvala mold the source with great care, directing its actors to fill the screen with their personalities. They can be big: Emma Thompson attacks Margaret with such force that it’s one of the most purely entertaining performances to ever score an Oscar. But they can be small, fragile; Vanesa Redgrave, as the Hilcox elder, is so magnetically quiet, off in her own world, that her character’s passing in the first half-hour haunts the rest of the movie like a ghost. Revisiting “Howards End” doesn’t only make you appreciate the movie more; it makes you sad costume dramas now largely live on in television shows that take too long to watch.