Sunday, July 30, 2017

Howards End (restored 4K) – a sumptuous battle of the classes (QFT until 3 August)

Howards End is set nearly a century apart and released two years before Four Weddings and a Funeral, but there’s a remarkable similarity in the style of storytelling and the casting of this Ismail Merchant/James Ivory film that has been recently restored and is now being screened in cinemas as a 4K digital print.

We’re slowly introduced to the three different family units with their different social backgrounds and their different relational dynamics before their lives are gradually allowed to meld together.

The adaptation of E. M. Forster’s novel starts with an unexpected and unapproved announcement of an engagement to a young Wilcox lad that sends an old Aunt (Prunella Scales) racing off to the titular house in the country to investigate. Totally without any sense of farce, Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) simultaneously travels back to London, having back-pedalled on the romance.

And so begins a lot of toing and froing between the big smoke and the low ceilinged rural house with its rich drapes and wooden beams. (The 2017 audience will silently rejoice that that the text message is more instantaneous than ye olde telegram for delivering urgent news!)
“We’re not odd; we’re over expressive”

It’s a totally female led film. Emma Thompson is marvellous as Margaret Schlegel, playing Helen’s older sister who runs her socialist-leading household with a pragmatic level-headedness, a touch of confident feminism and a need to interfere in other people’s lives. Practically every male on screen is a bit of a disappointment: I half expected Hugh Grant to appear before the end.

While the giddy and progressive Schlegels are well off, they are not rich. The wealthy upper class Wilcox family move in across the road and soon we also become acquainted with Jacky (Nicola Duffett) and Leonard Bast (Samuel West) who live in a flat in the shadow of a railway track and inject disruption into the storyline.

A death leads to the Wilcoxes colluding to deceive the Schlegels about a possible inheritance, but circumstance slowly unravels the wrongdoing Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins) grows close to Margaret Schlegel, throwing complex mixed motives at the minds of the audience.

Gentle humour accompanies the well-signposted misunderstandings. Heart strings are never seriously pulled. But there are many moments of awkwardness and social distress as class and convention rub up against expectations. And there should be sadness when justice for the most impoverished can only be found after death.

The many familiar cast members look frightfully young. While the story telling feels more modern than the turn of the 20th century setting, the strange fade-to-black that is used to jump forward in time within a scene must have jarred as much in 1992 as 2017.

The 4K conversion looks sharp and faithfully maintains the brown and amber tint of the original colour palette. Occasional artefacts jump out, like the butter-coloured speckled wallpaper that momentarily has a distracting moiré effect towards the end of the film.

Very long (142 minutes) and without any tear-jerking moments of surprise, Howards End could have been a damp squid of a film. Yet Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has successfully translated a well-constructed plot from paper page to silver screen and together with the quality of the acting and the sumptuous sets and costumes delivers an engaging and satisfying film.

You can catch the restored 4K print of Howards End at the Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 3 August.

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