Friday, December 2, 2016

HOWARD'S END on Blu-ray: the 25th anniversary of a genuine and enduring classic

"Only connect" -- as in, That's what we must do: simply connect with each other -- has become one of the prime themes associated with the famous British author E.M. Forster. His novel, Howard's End, was the book in which that phrase first appeared, I believe, and if the 1992 movie version of HOWARD'S END (releasing to Blu-ray this coming week via the Cohen Film Collection) managed to leave the famous phrase out of the film literally, Forster's plea (maybe command) remains present in every way imaginable -- intellectually, philosophically, visually, artfully -- throughout this splendid movie. TrustMovies loved the film at the time of its initial theatrical release, and he appreciates it even more viewing it this second time around -- having gone from middle age to old age and a perhaps more thoughtful stance.

What the film's director, James Ivory (shown at right), producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala have accomplished is to telescope the novel into filmic form without losing too much of its complexity while keeping those much vaunted connections -- between people and classes -- ever at the ready in ways large and small, obvious and not so. They have also, via their wonderful selection of actors, brought to rich life all these hugely constrained but also minutely detailed and highly complex characters.

Chief among these are the members of two families: the well-off but not wealthy Schlegels (two sisters, a brother, and an aging aunt) and the very rich Wilcoxes, a husband and wife and their several children and grandchildren. The two are connected by what at first appears to be a love match (soon aborted) and then a kind of deep and surprising friendship between the sickly Ruth Wilcox (the Oscar-nominated Vanessa Redgrave, above) and the elder sister Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson, below, who won a Best Actress "Oscar" for this role).

Their friendship leads to an unusual real estate transaction, a family's disregarding their dying mother's wish, and beyond this to love, commitment and revelations of past misdeeds -- all of which bring to light Forster's admonition but in ways that prove this connecting to be vastly more complicated than simple. This is what gives both the novel and the film their marvelous sense of encompassing life that spans age and class, gender and behavior with equal acuity and a kind of non-judgmental understanding of human need.

Other major roles are played by Anthony Hopkins (above), as the Wilcox paterfamilias; James Wilby as his thoughtless, entitled son; and especially Samuel West (below, left, with Helena Bonham Carter, riled and radiant as the younger Schlegel sister) in the pivotal role of Leonard Bast, surely one of Forster's most poignant characters -- a man who strives mightily against class force and his own servile nature to succeed in ways material and spiritual that he himself can barely imagine.

There is such deeply buried emotion roiling throughout the story, bubbling to the surface only often enough to carry us along, that the result you may feel post-viewing is something akin to marvel and near-shock as to how very much has been accomplished in terms of story, character and theme within a mere two hours and 22 minutes.

One of Ivory's great strengths as a filmmaker has always been his attention to detail without ever pushing it on us in any "Oooh, look at this!" manner. His film is spectacularly beautiful, but in a kind of "Well, there it is" style in which beauty, sadness, humor, character, performance and theme all blend seamlessly. (If you bypassed, due to the rather stupid critical drubbing it received upon its 2010 theatrical release, the man's most recent film -- a rich and wonderful concoction titled The City of Your Final Destination -- do try to grab a viewing. I hope Cohen eventually gives this one the 4K treatment, too.)

Ivory's oeuvre is so much better and more important that many of our critics have let on over the years -- often lumping the man in with the Masterpiece Theater ilk -- that the Cohen Film Collection's restorations in its ongoing Merchant Ivory Library should prove a gift beyond measure for film buffs worldwide. Meanwhile, Howard's End, after a limited, nationwide theatrical re-release, hits the street on DVD and Blu-ray this coming Tuesday, December 6, for sale and/or rental. In this new, two-disc set, there are plenty of fine Bonus Features, as well, that should keep you busy for extra hours. These include a Collector's Booklet with essays and stills; new interviews with director and cast; Behind-the-Scenes featurettes and documentaries; a 2016 On-Stage Q&A; the original theatrical trailer and the 2016 re-release trailer; and a new audio commentary track.

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