Even at the height of their artistic success, critics were divided about the filmmaking team known collectively as Merchant Ivory. This, of course, would be American director James Ivory, Indian producer Ismail Merchant and German-American screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who together were responsible for such lauded films as “A Room With a View,” “The Remains of the Day” and “A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries.”
Many of their films were adaptations of well-known, often English-centric novels into well-upholstered prestige films shot at surprisingly low costs since actors dropped their usual salary demands in order to appear in accomplished films with meaty roles, not to mention Oscar nomination possibilities.
But there were misses as well such as “The Wild Party,” “Slaves of New York” and “The Golden Bowl.” Crucially, the very label “Merchant Ivory” became shorthand among condescending critics for a kind of stuffy Englishness (surprisingly since none of the trio was English). As the Washington Post’s Rita Kempley once remarked, “If Merchant, Ivory and Jhabvala have anything to do with it, there’ll always be an England.”
A revival release of one of their very best films, “Howards End,” in what’s being billed as a “4K Restoration” of the 1992 film, may well prompt a critical reappraisal of their considerable work. (Only Ivory is still alive.) Far from being a pussy-footing period piece, the film contains all the passion, intensity, anger and emotional destructiveness of English class warfare circa 1910.
The movie has its monsters and hypocrites yet they speak with dignified, clipped British accents and even the poor dress in proper formality. What bedevils them in that time and place was an inability to communicate with one another in a society determined to suppress all natural instincts. But the utter civility of this class warfare has much to do with the tastes of Merchant Ivory, who were nothing if not respecters of period manners and mores.
James Ivory made his first films in India and was very much influenced by the humanist styles of Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray and Jean Renoir, who made one of the first significant Western film set in Bengal, “The River” (1951). These two directors, among the greatest ever to sit behind a camera, saw the human comedy not as one with heroes and villains but rather flawed, complex, struggling creatures called mankind.
This approach to storytelling informs all Merchant Ivory productions. Characters may perform monstrous acts but the filmmakers were more interesting in the social, historical and psychological factors that weighed heavily on such behavior.
“Howards End” is based on E.M. Forster’s 1910 masterpiece of the same name that dissects the class relationships and changing times of Edwardian England. Forster brings together, with the coincidences and contrivances only an expert novelist might pull off, three families that sit across the class divides from each other.
The Wilcox and Schlegel families have money; both are middle class though perhaps at opposite ends of that spectrum. Mr. Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins) is an industrialist/imperialist of the conservative school while the sisters of a German-English family named Schlegel, Margaret (Emma Thompson) and Helen (Helena Bonham Carter), maintain rather progressive cultural and social views and a slightly bohemian lifestyle.
A family connection causes young, headstrong Helen to fall momentarily for a younger Wilcox son with disastrous results that should part the families forever only for the novelist to intervene.
Leaving a family home in Dorset called Howards End, the Wilcoxes happen to rent a London house opposite the Schlegels’, which allows the ailing Mrs. Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave) to become bosom buddies with Margaret. They see the world and share values as others in their mutual families do not.
So great is their friendship that as she is dying, Mrs. Wilcox scribbles a note leaving her inheritance, Howards End, to Margaret. Henry Wilcox sees to it the note gets torn and tossed into the fireplace. It doesn’t even look like his late wife’s handwriting, he insists.
A chance reacquaintance with the sisters — again a masterful coincidence pulled off by the novelist — causes Henry’s appraisal of Margaret to ripen into a marriage proposal that distresses both families.
Meanwhile, Forster interweaves these families’ lives with that of a working-class couple, Leonard Bast (Samuel West) and his mistress and later wife Jacky (Niccola Duffett). Helen forms a fast friendship with Leonard and as much as she detests the Wilcoxes sees no harm in approaching her sister’s fiancé about helping the young insurance company clerk secure a better position.
This intervention too ends in disaster — a recurring theme for the younger sister, it would seem — leaving Leonard with no job to support his wife. Helen comforts him and then flees to Germany where she more or less goes into hiding from her sister and family.
In this interplay of personalities and classes — Prawer Jhabvala closely follows Forster’s plot design — the film investigates the conflicting attitudes and mores of the three families, this in spite of the surprising strength of Margaret and Henry’s marriage.
Henry feels absolutely no responsibility for the bad advice he has indirectly given Leonard that ultimately cost him his job. Indeed, he reflects: “The poor are poor. One is sorry for them, but there it is.”
Thus ends his brief indulgence in noblesse oblige. Helen is naturally outraged but Margaret sensibly takes her husband’s side even though she probably sees that he’s wrong.
Other family members weigh in including another of Henry’s sons and a Schlegel brother that further betray class prejudices and broken links in communication that bedeviled Edwardian society.
Forster’s novel begins with the words “Only connect…” on the title page, and later we read of Margaret: “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”
Thus, the Merchant Ivory team makes Margaret its protagonist if not the heroine. She is the sane player, the one whose attitudes you might describe as modern. We’re in a world where one upper-class woman in polite dinner conversation says she for one is glad not to have the vote. So you see what Margaret and Helen are up against.
Despite one death attributed to manslaughter and a prison sentence pronounced on another character, “Howards End” finds its way to a sort of happy ending or at least one that ends well and resolves the story’s issues more or less to the satisfaction of its families.
So some connection has been made.
Merchant Ivory was famous for surrounding any project with craftsmen of the highest calibre. Tony Pierce-Roberts’ cinematography, Luciana Arrighi’s production design and Jenny Beavan and John Bright’s costumes never betray “Howards End” as a period film.
By this I mean one get no sense of sets or costumes or ancient props and hair pieces. Rather the actors live in these environments, inhabiting them with the ease of the every day. Everything exists for a purpose rather than to show off period details. Were a contemporary motion picture camera to time travel back to 1910 this is what, you imagine, it would capture.
The actors live their roles with vigor and sincerity, each convincing in the clarity of purpose and sagacity of mind of his character. One of the movie’s greater revelations is that unlike today’s confusing and conflicted world, the people of this England knew their minds and little could challenge those mindsets.
So “only connect” serves as a rallying cry for not better communication but any communication at all.
A couple of days after I revisited “Howards End,” I happened to catch on TV a few final scenes from one of Merchant Ivory’s lesser productions, “Le Divorce” (2003). It was indeed surprising to see such able filmmakers, ones capable of “Howards End,” make such a mediocre film.
This one was based on a contemporary popular novel and there can be no doubt the trio always felt greater comfort with period pieces. But the tone and direction was so “off.” How could this be?
It would seem that Prawer Jhabvala dutifully and thoughtfully adapted whatever material selected and Merchant was a producing marvel, able to wring quality and amazing production values for any film even “Le Divorce,” which was set in contemporary Paris.
So these two relied in Ivory to make the film and sometime Ivory could not get a handle on what the material required or, worse, the material ill suited the Merchant Ivory style.
Of course, all filmmakers, even the greats, make poor movies. The team of Merchant Ivory had a singular approach to all its projects and some definitely benefited more from this than others. Indeed a few seemed to suffer from an approach where decorum and good taste clashed with a messier story and characters and in others where the style felt pretentious.
Whatever the case, Merchant Ivory was a team capable of considerable highs but unfortunate lows too with box-office duds and long-winded films. Nevertheless, those highs, as witnessed by the splendid “Howards End,” made for vigorous, highly satisfying moments of cinema.
Opens: August 26 New York, September 2, 2016 L.A. (Cohen Media Group)
Production companies: Merchant Ivory Productions in association with Film Four International
Cast: Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter, Vanessa Redgrave, Samuel West, Niccola Duffett, Jame Wilby, Susie Lindeman
Director: James Ivory
Screenwriter: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Based on the novel by: E.M. Forster
Producer: Ismail Merchant
Executive producer: Paul Bradley
Director of photography: Tony Pierce-Roberts
Production designer: Luciana Arrighi
Music: Richard Robbins
Costume designers: Jenny Beavan, John Bright
Editor: Andrew Marcus
PG rating, 140 minutes