The Merchant Ivory team makes coffee-table movies — elegantly appointed dramas whose impeccable taste often smothers them. Howards End is the grand exception, an achingly poignant literary adaptation that even action-movie junkies recognize as the real deal. If ever a film were made for the clarity of DVD, this is it, yet Howards hasn’t received its bells-and-whistles DVD due until now. Thirteen years since its release, the performances remain fresh and appallingly human, even under the Edwardian finery.
Anthony Hopkins gradually shades Henry Wilcox from a charismatic man of power to a figure of societal evil — watch his body language as he tells his second wife about his affair with a commoner — and Helena Bonham Carter pitilessly plays Helen Schlegel as the kind of well-intentioned sob sister you alternately want to hug and slap.
But this is Emma Thompson’s show. With her portrayal of Margaret Schlegel, the actress arrived first-class and won an Oscar for her pains. Watching the film today, you’re struck by how Thompson turns decency and common sense into nearly erotic virtues; you realize, too, how few movies have used her so well since.
Break out the reading group notes if you want to learn how E.M. Forster’s novel uses the title country house to symbolize England, because producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory aren’t talking. There’s no commentary, and the featurettes filling disc 2 fuss over surface production details and the duo’s surprisingly patchy filmography. The most fun: Merchant and Ivory bickering in interviews like an old, affectionate married couple. Mom, Dad, stop arguing — with this one, you done good.