Featuring Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Anthony Hopkins, and a heartbreaking Vanessa Redgrave, 1992’s “Howard’s End” was the third (and most star-studded) adaptation of a novel by E.M. Forster from the famed triumvirate of producer Ismail Merchant, Oscar-winning writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and director James Ivory. With the Merchant-Ivory team’s famed talent for exquisite visuals amidst extravagant period settings, it’s also perfect fodder for a Criterion two-disc DVD set.
Thompson and Bonham Carter are sisters Margaret and Helen Schlegel, affluent early 20th century intellectuals who find themselves embarrassingly intertwined with the crassly wealthy Wilcox family. Eventually, the ailing matriarch, Mrs. Wilcox (Redgrave), starts up an intense friendship with the older and more stable Schlegel sister, Margaret. After her death, wry Margaret unexpectedly falls for and marries Mr. Wilcox (Hopkins), not knowing the ardent capitalist had chosen to ignore a death-bed bequest of enormous import. Meanwhile, the younger Helen’s overweening sympathy for a sensitive clerk with intellectual aspirations (Samuel West) inadvertently threatens everyone’s happiness and proves, once again, that it’s money that matters most. A morally complex blend of complex comedy and drama with florid tragedy reminiscent of another great literary adaptation, George Stevens’ “A Place in the Sun,” “Howard’s End” is everything you could ask for in thoughtful period entertainment, with some highly nuanced ideas from novelist Forster on the interplay of economics and emotional life. Critics sometimes downplay the “tasteful” Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala films, but this hugely entertaining winner of three Academy Awards, including a Best Actress statue for Emma Thompson, gives Oscar bait a good name.