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HOWARDS END

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Vanessa Redgrave, Samuel West, James Wilby, Prunella Scales
Director:  James Ivory
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Home Vision
Features:  See Review
Length:  142 Minutes
Release Date:  February 15, 2005

"Don't take up a sentimental attitude towards the poor.  The poor are poor.  One is sorry for them...but there it is."

Film ****

Howards End is many good things rolled up in the package of one splendid motion picture. It is a beautiful period piece, complete with great costumes, sets and cinematography. It is a wonderful character study, with rich performances. It is perhaps first and foremost a great example of storytelling on film.

Based on the classic novel by E. M. Forster, this movie deals with the classes in England just after the turn of the century. We meet the middle class Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen (Thomson and Carter), who end up with connections to the upper class Wilcox family, led by Ruth and Henry (Redgrave and Hopkins), and to a struggling lower classman, Leonard Bast (West). It also deals with love of tradition, as personified by the house that is the title's namesake.

Ruth and Margaret become good friends, and on her deathbed, Ruth scribbles a note saying that she wants the house, which is in her name, to go to Margaret. Why her, rather than her own family? Margaret has similar values, and appreciates the history and tradition of Howards End, which has been in Ruth's family for generations. She knows the stories of the house and the people who live there. Distraught, and not entirely sure Ruth was of sound mind when she made her decision, Henry and family decide to quietly destroy the note, and make no mention of it.

But as fate would have it, Henry falls for Margaret, and eventually the two marry. But Henry, who is often quiet and unable to express his feelings, ends up showing his cold side by turning his back on the Basts, who are in dire straits after Leonard leaves a good job upon Henry's warning, and is now unable to find work. He and his wife are now starving.

It gets more complicated when two affairs surface: one that happened long ago between Henry and Leonard's wife, and a new one between Henry and Helen.

If all this sounds like a lot, trust me, it is only because I am over simplifying for this review. It all plays out beautifully over the course of the movie, with its Oscar winning screenplay that really appreciates the dramatic irony of the story. It's not without a little humor, too. But the point is not so much the plot, though it's a good one--it's about the characters, and how they react to one another and grow. Particularly Margaret...can she remain loyal to her husband Henry after he shows such callous disregard for the plight of another? Or when he turns his back on her sister for her affair, even though he once had one of his own?

The cast is superb, led by the terrific Anthony Hopkins and the exquisite Emma Thompson, who richly deserved the Oscar she won for her role. They both exemplify the struggle between manners and compassion, as well as what is traditional and beyond reproach, and what needs to be changed for the sake of being human.

Howards End, in short, is everything an excellent film should be: well written, acted and directed, intelligent, unpredictable, funny, touching, and most of all, entertaining.

Video ****

This new release from Home Vision is a vast improvement over the surprisingly lackluster Columbia Tri Star issue.  Howards End is one of the 90s most beautiful color films, and this anamorphic transfer finally gets that right.  Gone is the undue grain and haziness and the sense of muted tones...now, the palate is rich, bright, and uncompromised.  Image detail is strong throughout, even in the settings with lower or natural lighting.

Audio ***

A brand new 5.1 mix really adds punch, especially with Richard Robbins' score, which is quite dynamic.  Spoken words are clean and clear throughout.  This is simply an example of how a new mix can bring out a better listening experience, even in a dialogue oriented movie such as this one.  Crowd scenes make use of the rear stage for a more open and complete sense of ambience.

Features ***1/2

A wealth of extras can be found on Disc Two of this two disc special edition, starting with a brand new 40 minute retrospective documentary "Building Howards End", which features new interviews with producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, star Helena Bonham Carter and many of the crew members.  There is also a featurette on the production design, the original short production featurette from 1992, and an exquisitely informative documentary from 1984 "The Wandering Company", which chronicles the even then rich history of Merchant Ivory productions.  Rounding out is the original trailer.

Summary:

Kudos to Home Vision for finally bringing fans the DVD version of Howards End they deserve.  Their disc is an improvement over the original Columbia Tri Star release in every way, and makes for a most welcome addition to their growing collection of Merchant Ivory titles.

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