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A Great and Terrible Civility

(Margaret Herrick Library)

Though derided by some at the time as bloodless Masterpiece Theatre filmmaking, Merchant Ivory Productions was, for a short period, a cinematic sure thing, concocting intellectually satisfying dramas far superior to the eye candy of other art-house costume period dalliances. Producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory — who were business and romantic partners before Merchant’s 2005 death — and their frequent screenwriter, Booker Prize–winning novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, reached their apex with Howards End, a tale of two loving sisters torn apart by . . . well, what exactly? Screening as part of the Academy’s “Great to Be Nominated” series of Best Picture runners-up, the now 15-year-old film, based on E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel, has lost none of its lavish period detail — Luciana Arrighi and Ian Whittaker’s Oscar-winning art direction will look wondrous in this 70 mm print. But what pops off the screen isn’t the décor. Rather, we get blind-sided by the bitter tale of Margaret and Helen Schlegel (played by Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter) and their misadventures with the prosperous Wilcox family, presided over by an uncharacteristically subdued and nuanced Anthony Hopkins.

Thompson’s Margaret fancies herself an outspoken, cultured Londoner, content to live out her days as a defiantly single woman holding court in her childhood flat, until she meets Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave) and Henry Wilcox (Hopkins), whose affluence provokes unexpected stirrings inside her. From there, Jhabvala’s Oscar-winning screenplay outlines the emotional toll of Margaret’s halfhearted decision to accept Henry’s marriage proposal after his wife’s death, a choice with nothing but unexpected side effects: the revelation of Margaret’s long-buried desire for status, the passion of Helen’s contempt and envy, and the social phenomenon that dictates that every class treat those beneath it with a perverse mixture of self-righteous charity and cruel meddling. When I first saw Howards End in my teens, I was easily wowed by its visual splendor, engrossed by all the sophisticated conversation and tony interiors. Now, as an adult, I recognize the terrible sadness underneath all those frills: What joy is there to living in a civilized age when you can’t even pay the rent? (Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater; Mon., Aug. 20, 7:30 p.m.)

—Tim Grierson


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