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 1985’s A Room with a View through 1993’s 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, from 1987, 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 1992’s 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.
Ivory’s 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.