The pinnacle of the decades-long collaboration between producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory, Howards End is a luminous vision of E. M. Forster’s cutting 1910 novel about class divisions in Edwardian England. Emma Thompson won an Academy Award for her dynamic portrayal of Margaret Schlegel, a flighty yet compassionate middle-class intellectual whose friendship with the dying wife (Vanessa Redgrave) of rich capitalist Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins) commences an intricately woven tale of money, love, and death that encompasses the country’s highest and lowest social echelons. With a brilliant, layered script by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (who also won an Oscar) and a roster of gripping performances, Howards End is a work of both great beauty and vivid darkness, and one of cinema’s best literary adaptations.
James Ivory’s Howards End makes its debut on Blu-ray through The Criterion Collection, presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on this dual-layer Blu-ray disc. It’s presented in 1080p. Criterion previously released the film on DVD outside of their main Criterion line, releasing it under their “Merchant Ivory Collection” label. At the moment only the Blu-ray edition is available under the Criterion label with a spine number of 488, but this is, in essence, a high-def version of the previous Merchant Ivory Collection DVD edition.
While I will say it’s open to improvement in an area or two this is clearly the best I’ve seen the film. Despite not being altogether that fond of Howards End I’ve seen it on VHS, the original Sony DVD, and then the Merchant Ivory DVD. The last DVD was a large improvement over Sony’s non-anamorphic edition, presenting a brighter, sharper image, but this Blu-ray edition is a stunning improvement over both. At first I suspected the same high-def digital transfer used for that DVD was used here but I don’t believe that to actually be the case after revisiting the DVD again. The original DVD had a fairly clean print with some specs of debris throughout, but I don’t recall seeing much damage, if any, on this edition. Colours also look far better on this Blu-ray than they do on the DVD, coming off far more vibrant and natural. I think the twilight sequences come off looking better as well, and seem to be easier to see. Blacks are where I’m a little unsure; sometimes they look a little too opaque and some objects can lose detail because of this.
Despite that small issue detail as a whole is vastly improved upon. Despite my distaste for most Merchant Ivory films I have to admit they do look wonderful and Blu-ray is the perfect home video format for their films as proven by this Blu-ray for Howards End. Some of the landscapes, the buildings (particularly the house of the film’s title,) and backdrops all present some fine, beautiful details and they’re presented perfectly here. Grain is present but not heavy and it looks natural. There can be a soft look to the picture at times but I think this has more to do with a soft focus being employed during shooting and not anything that has to do with the digital transfer itself.
And as I mentioned before the print looks practically flawless. While I know people, myself included, were upset that this film was the one that won Criterion’s Amazon.com contest on what film should be next released on Blu-ray (beating out such films as Kwaidan and Picnic at Hanging Rock, which I still hope are coming soon) it is an excellent film for the format and Criterion has done a fantastic job with it. A lovely digital transfer.
The DTS-HD 5.1 surround track was certainly a surprise. It’s a talky film, needless to say, with dialogue, sticking to the fronts, sounding crystal clear. But the film likes to pump the not-so-subtle score and this aspect makes great use of the soundtrack. Music pumps out of all of the speakers and is very clear, the best I’ve heard it. There are noticeable splits, some decent bass, and I have to admit, I got caught up in the film a little more than usual because of this. Subtle background noises are also present in the back speakers on occasion. The DVD’s Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track was pretty good but I don’t recall it reaching levels like this. In the end the new lossless track is a surprisingly ample one.
I had rented the first disc of the Merchant Ivory DVD originally and have not seen the second disc of the set, which contained all of the supplements. While I can’t confirm if they’re the same, it does appear everything from that release has been ported to the Blu-ray, with this Blu-ray also containing a new, exclusive feature (and then the Timeline of course.) Everything is found under the “Supplements” section of the fly-out menu.
First is a 42-minute documentary called Building “Howards End”, made in 2005 prior to Ismail Merchant’s death. It’s unfortunately a talking-heads piece but its key interviewees are surprisingly engaging and make the piece more fascinating than I anticipated. Production designer Luciana Arrighi, costume designer Jenny Beavan, and actress Helena Bonham Carter offer decent information on their respective duties for the film, even reflecting on their work on other Merchant Ivory productions but it was producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory, filmed together, who surprised me by offering the energy to the piece. They’re actually a funny pair, and it’s easy to tell they love what they do. It’s pretty clear that Ismail was the “brains” so to speak, and he is the one that would convince Ivory on what films to do. I was actually amazed at how uninterested it appears Ivory was in the book Howards End (he states at the beginning there was only one scene in the book he really liked and it never made it into the film) but it appears once Ismail pointed Ivory towards the book he just slipped right in. There’s discussion on the adaptation, casting, financing, the actual shoot, and then actually finding distribution. It then closes with Orion, their original American distributor, going bankrupt and the legal troubles getting the film released, eventually by the newly formed Sony Pictures Classics. This also presents the most amusing piece as they get into an mild argument about the American legal system and bankruptcy, with Ivory defending it and Merchant condemning it, all out of nowhere. I actually wasn’t looking forward to viewing this documentary but I surprisingly enjoyed it. It’s far more interesting than it probably should be.
The Design of “Howards End” is a short 8-minute piece featuring more of a focus on Production designer Luciana Arrighi and costume designer Jenny Beavan. The two talk about capturing the look, Arrighi showing her sketches and finished drawings, and then Beavan getting into the amount of work that went into making the costumes as authentic as possible, even getting special fabric. Interesting enough but not one many should feel inclined to view.
The Wandering Company is a 50-minute, 1984 documentary on Merchat Ivory productions. It’s a decent, though dry, documentary on James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, gathering together various people who worked with them on their films. It moves through their career up to A Room with a View, showing clips from the various films and giving brief histories on them and pointing out common themes. There’s some interesting anecdotes, including reeling in Raquel Welch on the set of The Wild Party, and Ivory again makes for an interesting interview subject, but the documentary is fairly stuffy and probably only for those that have a real interest in the partnership.
James Ivory on Ismail Merchant is an exclusive feature to this Blu-ray, not available on the previous DVD. Recorded this year, Ivory talks about his partnership with Merchant starting with how they first met and then reflecting on Merchant’s uncanny ability to get films made despite all the odds, and even wonders how he’ll be able to get anything made now. It’s a good interview, probably better at capturing their relationship than the previous documentary.
The disc then closes with promotional material, including a 4-and-a-half minute behind the scenes featurette and then a 2-minute theatrical trailer.
And again like all of Criterion’s Blu-ray releases you will also find the Timeline. You can open it from the pop-up menu or by pressing the RED button on your remote. This is a timeline that shows your current position in the film. It lists the index chapters for the and you can also switch to the alternate unrestored audio track from here. You also have the ability to bookmark scenes by pressing the GREEN button and return to them by selecting them on the timeline. You can also delete bookmarks by pressing the BLUE button.
The disc then comes with a short booklet that includes an essay by Kenneth Turan who covers the film, how it’s held up over the years, and the work of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory.
As a whole the supplements are a little hit and miss, though I guess as a whole I enjoyed them more than I thought I would, far more than the main feature. A decent, fairly comprehensive collection of features.
While I don’t always stick to this I realize, I do try not to comment on the film’s themselves. But I feel I must here if only to show how impressed I was with this release. I’m not particularly fond of the Merchant Ivory films, with Howards End in particular being my least favourite (I’ve always found it relentlessly dry and just cinematically uninteresting, despite all the lush visuals.) I keep coming back to it every so often but my opinion of it has never changed. But with this Blu-ray the impossible actually happened midway through: I found myself enjoying it (if only mildly.) It’s actually like watching it for the first time and high-definition seems to better suit Ivory’s intended look for the film. On previous home video versions it really did lose its sumptuous feel but in high-definition the film without doubt looks and feels grander and actually a little, shall I say, livelier. It makes me wonder how I would have originally felt about the film if I had seen it theatrically. I’m still not completely won over by the film but this is absolutely the way to see it on home video. Criterion’s transfer has a couple of issues but it does still look wonderful with a surprisingly active soundtrack to match. Throw some decent (if not spectacular) supplements and you have an incredibly strong Blu-ray release. An impressive release.