It’s so important to know where we’ve been so we really know where we are going. Film Restoration and retrospective screenings are just as important as new releases so that we can experience the art of the cinema then way that it was meant to be seen. Howard’s End now freshly restored in all its glory on the brink of its 25th anniversary shows us how important it is to see things on the big screen as they were intended.
A uniquely layered and emotionally fascinating and poignant story, we meet Margaret and Helen Schlegel (Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter) good middle class folk who are eventually losing their home in the eventual modernization and condo building that is running rampant at the turn of the century in London. They awkwardly encounter Ruth & Henry Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave & Anthony Hopkins) who are renting a flat near then for the marriage of their son a year after an awkward situation where Helen was briefly engaged to the young Wilcox man. The families become friends and eventually become intertwined in the awkward and quite often unnecessary trappings of class relations as the death of Ruth and Henry’s subsequent marriage to Margaret ends up unearthing a slew of deeply buried emotions and clashing where the hierarchies of the class structure are involved, while at the same time both Margaret and Helen inadvertently ruin the life of a young and passionate bank clerk struggling to find a higher station for himself in his life.
Adapted from the novel of the same name by E.M. Forster, this Merchant Ivory classic still packs an emotional punch but it also speaks to the fact that as fantastic the technology is that is exists to restore and preserve some of these films, it can also let loose some filmmaking tricks that maybe audiences wouldn’t have noticed previously.
To his credit, Merchant Ivory really does make this entire film look so very lush and some of the frames simply look like an oil painting as he drags us into this world where the ornate nature of class structure is the be all and end all of everything but there are a couple of scenes where the effects and visual tricks of the time get unfortunately highlighted with this new 4K restoration, but it won’t be enough to take anyone out of this rich story. The narrative flows effortlessly as it weaves in and out of this world that we aren’t necessarily meant to understand but are tragically forced to accept. Throughout his career, Merchant Ivory has been an unequivocal master at setting tone through the use of his visuals and he does it here with absolute aplomb as the films strengths in its visual style along with the words on the page were awarded with some Academy Award wins, including one for a simply masterful performance.
Emma Thompson truly did become a household name from a North American standpoint with her amazing turn as Margaret Schlegel. Very much a woman on the brink of both the upper and the lower classes she managed to paint the portrait of a strong and independent woman during a time where that wasn’t always the easiest thing to be. She allows the character to have her strengths while never shying away from her weaknesses either. Helena Bonham Carter was fine as her sister while Anthony Hopkins and Vanessa Redgrave deliver their always steadfast best efforts. However this is truly Thompson’s movie and you never really understand that until you see it unravel itself in front of your eyes.
It’s a film that feels like it has drifted out of the popular conversations…but it really shouldn’t have as Howard’s End is a bold study of character that really does sneak up and engage audiences in the social trappings of the time and deserves to be seen, either again or for the first time.