Say “Merchant-Ivory” to most cinephiles and watch their eyelids sag. It’s not hard to see why. The people who use words like “filmic” and “formalism” put their time in defending their medium against the influence of the theater. Damned if they’re going to lay down their swords in the face of a counterattack by their shared ancestry: the novel. Merchant-Ivory films (at least the titles since their 1984 adaptation of Henry James’s The Bostonians) are arrogantly literary, and in almost every case would be better told through the printed page, preferably in the form of the lofty novels they’ve spent most of their career digesting into recognizable and comforting movie chunks. Worse still, the films that make up their own “golden age,” the string roughly stretching from A Room with a View through The Remains of the Day, all pay much lip service to the class distinctions that fuel each and every social interaction. But their own fussy mise-en-scène is deployed to such classy, tranquilizing effect that the subtleties are typically lost on the bourgeoisie who are, damningly, most receptive to the frippery. (Maurice at least treads water on the assumption that the story of gay love that also crosses boundaries of social standing and nationality was taken autobiographically by both WASP James Ivory and Indian Ismail Merchant.)
If Howards End, a three-family drama of manners in which a middle-class clan finds themselves torn between upward mobility and charity toward their social inferiors, is now taken to resemble something like their peak, it’s entirely due to the intelligence of Emma Thompson and Vanessa Redgrave’s performances. Their shared warmth as actors not only helps guide viewers through a frankly haphazard, episodic series of narrative chapters, but almost justifies Ivory’s laissez-faire cinematic approach. His cinematic understatement and over-reliance on screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s excessively declarative dialogue are rendered far more reasonable when the reins are handed over to actors like Thompson, who knows well enough to deliver overripe lines as though she were singing, and Redgrave, who alone seems to remember that acting is also about what you don’t say. Otherwise, like so many Merchant-Ivory films, Howards End is a luxurious frame without a picture.
Howards End has already been released by Home Vision Entertainment as part of their Merchant-Ivory Collection. Now it is being given an honorary berth in the Criterion Collection to justify its release on Blu-ray. All questions of cinematic worth aside (as they have been since Criterion chose to include Armageddon under their masthead), it would’ve been nice if the presentation of Howards End alone could’ve earned the honor. Unfortunately, this high-definition image is shockingly blotchy for a movie that’s not even two decades old yet. Far beyond mere film grain, the noise levels of many of the film’s darker scenes are just plain distracting. In a couple instances, I even noted a bizarre grid-like pattern seemingly overlaid on the image. Color balance, however, seems solid. The sound mix, with its emphasis on the romantic, piano-driven music score, by far outpaces the picture.
Merchant-Ivory fans will be in heaven. I was, obviously, somewhere else. You’ll have to take me at my word when I say that the hour-long documentary look at the partner’s filmography leading up to A Room with a View, the hour’s worth of interviews with many of Howards End’s collaborators (including a special look at the costume and art direction), and the new video appreciation of the now late Merchant by Ivory are all appropriately tasteful.
Not my cup of tea. I don’t even like tea.