“Who speaks of Howards End these days?” asks Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan in the liner notes for the film’s new Criterion edition. He’s right. Among the more critically vaunted films of the ’90s, the film stood out in a trifecta of successful literary adaptations (A Room With A View and Remains Of The Day were the others) from writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, producer Ismail Merchant, and director James Ivory. Howards End was nominated for nine Oscars, and provided wins for the art directors, Jhabvala, and the film’s luminous star, Emma Thompson. Then Pulp Fiction happened two years later, and their brand of well-behaved costume dramas fell precipitously out of favor; until Criterion came along, Howards End’s most recent DVD incarnation was as part of the “Merchant-Ivory Collection,” just another in a middling pile of prestige pictures.
Yet there was a reason people responded so strongly to Howards End in 1992, and though the Merchant-Ivory template remains out of fashion, its reputation stands to be restored a little. In truth, E.M. Forster’s novel about class and national identity in turn-of-the-century England is too much book for any film to adapt properly; at its worst, Howards End glides dispassionately over the complexity and turbulence of the country’s crumbling social structure. But there’s grace and surprising bursts of emotion in the telling, too, starting with Thompson’s magnificent performance as a well-meaning middle-class matron caught between worlds.
The country cottage of the title—a honking metaphor for the state of England itself—belongs to an extravagantly wealthy family whose aging matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) decides on her deathbed to bequeath it to Thompson. Shocked by her generosity toward a woman who befriended her only in the waning years of her life, Redgrave’s family, led by Anthony Hopkins, tears up the hastily scrawled will and retains control of the property. Out of guilt, Hopkins finds a new home for Thompson and her sister Helena Bonham Carter, and eventually marries Thompson, who remains oblivious to the secret of her denied inheritance. Meanwhile, Bonham Carter involves herself in the fate of a down-on-his-luck banker (Samuel West) and his vulgar wife (Nicola Duffet), who have their own ties with the upper crust.
That’s a lot of story for Jhabvala’s script to carry across, because the connections between these representatives of three social strata are so intricate and essential to make. The rush of narrative developments sacrifices a deeper articulation of key relationships, like Thompson’s friendship with Redgrave, or her courtship with Hopkins, which seems far too hasty. (Points off, too, for a third-act tragedy that crushes a character with a metaphor.) But Thompson, in her signature role, holds the movie together, earnestly working to reconcile people and worlds in conflict, even as her actions threaten to drag her under. The payoff comes thanks to her heroic presence at the film’s center and the patient unfolding that leads Howards End to a devastating conclusion.
Key features: A supplemental disc includes several new features, including a talking-head documentary on the making of Howards End, a look at the set and costume design, and a history of Merchant-Ivory Productions. Also included is Ivory’s appreciation of his longtime filmmaking partner Merchant, who died in 2005.