After 35 years of toiling and only one hit to their name (A Room with a View), the directing-producing team of Merchant-Ivory finally hit their stride with Howards End, a work that would become synonymous with their names and the template for their unmistakable style.
Slow, intricate, and deeply symbolic, Howards End ranks among the top films in their oeuvre. It's a history that, if you look at it closely, really amounts to three greats (End, Room, and The Remains of the Day) and a whole lot of nothing-much-else. But that's a subject for another day.
Today we're tasked with the legacy of Howards End -- and no, there's no apostrophe -- which tells us of three groups of Brits in the early 1900s. The Wilcox clan (headed by Vanessa Redgrave) is old school aristocrat, with her son Henry (Anthony Hopkins) quietly itching for more control. The elderly Ruth befriends the liberal, upper-middle-class Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson), and before she dies Ruth wills her country estate, Howards End, to the woman. But Henry burns the letter and keeps the estate -- eventually romancing Margaret for himself. Meanwhile, Margaret's sister Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) befriends the lowerish-class Leonard Bast (Samuel West), taking him under her wing. Before the two hours and change of Howards End are up, all three groups (and their families) have intertwined in ways we'd never expect, and a procession of secrets have spewed forth from the closet.
End is heavy stuff, made heavier by the rich production details and attention to the smallest of things. Hopkins and Thompson are so perfect together it's hard not to buy them as a couple, and the remaining cast members acquit themselves perfectly. At its core is a class struggle of epic proportions, and James Ivory knows just how to get to the core of it.
Unfortunately, this fabulous film is nearly ruined by a terrible, terrible editing choice, which involves fading out from nearly every cut (no matter how short), then snapping back in to the picture. This is often repeated four or five times for any given scene and has the disastrous effect of making the film seem very choppy and erratic -- and Howards End is very poorly edited to start with, jerking from scene to scene and place to place with no regard to transition.
If you can put that behind you and immerse yourself in the movie, you'll find much to enjoy here. Now on special edition DVD, the second disc offers old and new interviews about the making of the film -- primarily regarding its sets and costumes.