Studio: Cohen Film Collection
Dec 05, 2016 Web Exclusive
Downton Abbey’s runaway success has done a great deal to popularize the Edwardian soap opera. Audiences have become hungry for class-crossing romances, hushed tea room scandals, and to see now-trivial-seeming taboos broken right under the noses of the stuffier members of Britain’s high society. Merchant Ivory Productions was filling a very similar niche for decades before Julian Fellowes’ show premiered, cresting in a string of lavish, grandiose (and, yes, pretty soapy) literary adaptations in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. The best of these acclaimed films is widely regarded to be the 1992 E.M. Forster adaptation, Howards End.
Howards End – named for the countryside estate where several of the story’s twists occur – has it all: classes bumping against one another in problematic ways, unlikely coincidences, and scandal – or perhaps worse, the fear of perceived scandal. The aristocratic Schlegel sisters, Helen – played by Helena Bonham Carter, before she was condemned to playi an endless train of Tim Burton’s manic pixie goth girls – and Margaret – Emma Thompson, in a role which won her Best Actress – become romantically entangled with two families of conflicting classes: the bourgeois Wilcoxes, led by patriarch Henry (Anthony Hopkins), and the impoverished Basts, mostly the sickly, sensitive intellectual husband, Leonard (Samuel West). Their interactions consistently buck societal conventions, kicking up all sorts of awkwardness for everyone involved.
Don't let my tepid synopsis dissuade you from the film, however. It's certainly not the plot – soapy and often far-fetched as it is – that’s the draw for Howards End. Merchant Ivory were famous for producing some of cinema’s most lavish period dramas, and Howards End is perhaps the culmination of their craft. Howards End is stunningly photographed by Tony Pierce-Roberts, with a well-fitting score and gorgeous costume design. More importantly, the film is superbly cast and features top-grade performances from top to bottom; Thompson’s turn was rightly rewarded, yet Hopkins’ is more restrained, making the moments when his character’s stoic exterior cracks all the more effective. Howards End was nominated for a staggering nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture. (It won Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Art Direction, in addition to Thompson’s gold.) The movie’s plot becomes secondary when everything else about it is so high-quality.
Cohen Media have given the film a bold 4K restoration for its 25th Anniversary. The picture is bright and detailed, both in the film’s many pastoral, floral landscapes and intricately-decorated interiors; for certain, this viewing experience does this immaculate-looking film justice. The extra features are plentiful, with a new critics’ audio commentary, Q&As, and a fat booklet, plus a vintage featurette and some mini-documentaries carried over from Criterion’s older, out-of-print edition. Cohen has done a great job with Howards End, and this edition bodes very well for their future Merchant Ivory releases.
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