Merchant Ivory goes mainstream -- Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and Ruth Prawler Jhabvala's take a step away from the art-house crowd with ''Howards End''

By Ty Burr
June 04, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

Merchant Ivory goes mainstream

In 30 years of delicately lobbed hits and misses — most of which can be found on video if you know where to look — producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala have offered a coffee-table aestheticism that can seem the exact opposite of the movies. In their finer films, though, they break out of the straitjacket of mere good taste, and their latest, Howards End (1992, Columbia TriStar, PG, $94.95), has a drive and generosity of spirit that opens it up to audiences that normally shun Masterpiece Theatre flicks.

You can see the team’s strengths and weaknesses in its second movie, Shakespeare Wallah (1965, Sultan, unrated, B&W, $29.98), the story of a ragtag British acting troupe that travels through postcolonial India. If Ivory overstates his theme of cultural nostalgia, Jhabvala’s ironic touches are nice: The central love story is between a Hindu prince who’s the very model of a hip Western playboy (Shashi Kapoor) and a dewy British actress who has never been out of India in her life (Felicity Kendal).

After 14 years and five features together — most of which probed the great divide between Indian and English cultures in similar fashion — the threesome moved on to another subgenre: the filming of Great Books. The first of these did not bode well. The Europeans (1979, Vestron, G, $69.95) is a dreadful adaptation of Henry James’ story about two Continental fortune hunters (Lee Remick and Tim Woodward) who descend upon their stolid Bostonian cousins; glacially paced and self-consciously spare, the movie chokes to death on its own smug tastefulness. But with 1986’s A Room With a View (FoxVideo, unrated, $14.98), Merchant Ivory discovered E.M. Forster, whose novels combine a stiff-upper-lip sincerity and underground passion that complement their own. And with Forster’s Howards End, they’ve figured out how to get beyond the decor to the characters’ beating hearts. Which is fine, since it’s always hard to see the wallpaper on videotape.

Howards End unravels over the course of years, with subplots cropping up like chapters: the marriage between repressed businessman Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins) and blessedly normal Margaret Schlegel (Oscar winner Emma Thompson); the growing obsession of her sister, Helen (Helena Bonham Carter), with the poetically inclined clerk Leonard Bast (Sam West). There’s symbolism here, if you like: Forster used his novel to work out answers to the question, Who Will Inherit Britain? The country house called Howards End stands for Britain in the early 1900s — a little rundown but still ripe with rural beauty — and the characters represent the different strata of British society. But Forster’s characters work as vivid individuals first, and Merchant, Ivory, and Jhabvala never betray him by shoving allegory in your face. They know the novelist’s ruling principle was ”only connect” — to his audience, and, more important, to life itself. By trusting him, they do. Howards End: A Shakespeare Wallah: C+ The Europeans: D+ A Room With a View: B+