Tag: james ivory

Howards End


Howards End (1992)
★★★ / ★★★★

Handsome-looking every step of the way, “Howards End,” based upon the novel by E.M. Forster and adapted to the screen by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, is a film to be admired from a sensory point of view but, for most, including myself, not one to invest emotionally despite first-class performances. Yet it is worth seeing at least once because there are numerous fresh choices here that modern dramas, particularly of the mainstream variety, that can learn from. More importantly, how these choices are utilized in order to make a rather old-fashioned plot feel new and engaging.

One of these choices is in the use of transition between scenes. The plot revolves around a wealthy family who owns various estates in England whose patriarch, Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins), strict in maintaining his wealth, reputation, and privilege, chooses to ignore his wife’s dying wish (Vanessa Redgrave) of the titular estate being passed on to Margaret (Emma Thompson), a middle-class unmarried woman who lives with her siblings (Helena Bonham Carter, Adrian Ross Magenty). Because the story unfolds in different houses, certainly of varying prestige, it is critical that the transitions do not come across as sudden or jarring. An interesting choice is employing seemingly random images like a group of horses clip-clopping their way down the street, a person reading out loud the words of the novel he is immersed in, or the camera moving away from the focal point of the action and toward a nondescript object that just so happen to be in the same room.

It is such a clever way to denote a movement in location, to highlight a passage of time, to underscore emotions felt but not expressed. A deep level of poetry can be found in these images which is most appropriate because Margaret and her siblings are the type of people who take pleasure in appreciating art, reading and discussing literature, listening to music and form theories about them. Thus, the artistic choice of making each transition special puts us into the mindset or lifestyle of Margaret’s family—which also serves as a contrast against the Wilcox clan: how they tend to value money and what people say about them over everything else. If there were love in the Wilcox’ household, it would be found in their bank accounts.

Another interesting approach is minimizing the drama—which may sound odd because the material is dramatic by nature. For instance, revelations about certain characters, especially their pasts, are almost treated as afterthoughts. We suspect that certain secrets will be a big deal when revealed, but more often there are no screaming matches, no yelling, no tears. There is, however, compartmentalization. Although it did not always work for me because I found that certain characters a not fully fleshed out, particularly in establishing thoroughly convincing relationships, especially the romantic variety, there is great drama in not expressing. Consummate performers like Thompson and Hopkins thrive in being quiet and letting us know how knowledge of certain things affect their characters. And that is enough to make us feel for them. After all, we have all been situations where we find ourselves at a loss for words, sometimes on purpose in order to maintain a level of control, even though coming across such information bothers us to the core.

To elaborate further, I felt that the relationship between Margaret and Henry is curious but lacking detail—that certain crucial elements are lost between novel and film. For example, I found no compelling reason for someone like Margaret to want to have anything to do with Henry. Did she enjoy the man’s attention because she herself is getting older yet she remains unmarried? Was she interested in his money? Being the central character, her motivation must be clear. Instead, the possible romantic connection felt rushed. Another example is the change in Margaret and Helen’s relationship. Again, it is hastily handled which felt contrived and unconvincing about half the time.

So, you see, I admired the film for its craft but not necessarily the human connections. Another example: The cinematography, the rural outdoors being juxtaposed against the metropolitan London, offers great beauty in different ways. Perhaps the intention then is to create contrasting impressions. It does, after all, tackle the subject of contrasting worlds.

Watching the work is like looking at a seemingly ordinary painting of a house sitting in a field but as you look more closely, its world opens up and speaks to you. It was a strange feeling and I urge others to see if they would have that experience, too.

The Remains of the Day


The Remains of the Day (1993)
★★★★ / ★★★★

James Ivory’s subtle but powerful “The Remains of the Day,” based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro and adapted to the screen by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, tasks the viewer to read between the lines. On the surface, it can be argued that nothing much happens as we observe men of certain pedigree enter and exit the palatial Darlington Hall. But look closely and listen intently at how people—both the men of titles and the servants whose job is to ensure that every little thing during such posh gatherings goes swimmingly—carry themselves and the content of the various exchanges. There is a wealth of information to be had that touches upon duty—to one’s country, fellowmen, career, personal needs, and conscience. Here is a film for those willing to fall under its hypnosis.

The story begins and ends in 1958 post-war Britain, but the majority of its content unfolds throughout the 1930s. Anthony Hopkins plays the butler of Darlington Hall, Mr. Stevens, and he is in charge of every minute detail, from making astute hiring decisions to carefully evaluating whether certain jobs are being performed well, that goes on within the residence. The later timeline involves the butler meeting with the former housekeeper, Ms. Kenton (Emma Thompson), who decided to leave Darlington Hall so she could get married, while the earlier timeline shows the many years the two have worked together and how their professional relationship and a sort-of friendship change over time.

Tension is ever-present when these veteran performers exchange dialogue. Their characters utilize their words either as shields or weapons, to attack or to disarm, sometimes to attempt to embrace, in a place where feelings, certainly romantic ones, are encouraged to be repressed because not doing so would not only serve as distraction, it would be considered unprofessional. Their struggle is a deliciously ironic, especially through the scope of nobility and decorum, because the owner of Darlington Hall (James Fox) eventually finds himself willing to make a deal with Adolf Hitler in order to prevent Britain from engaging in war. A number of wealthy diplomats, many of them so detached from what their citizens want, frequent the place and we assess their questionable intentions in a place of great beauty, from its internal architectures and sculptures to figurines and artworks hung on walls.

It is amazing how Hopkins is able to convey so much by wearing a rather stoic face and slow but precise body movements. A consummate actor, he is able to communicate plenty, for example, by simply touching someone else’s hand with only his fingertips and letting them rest there for three seconds. Notice the way he controls his eyes when Mr. Stevens is performing an every day task, how it is rather similar to how he regards Ms. Kenton—it is the same look. But it is the correct decision, you see, because the character’s passion lies in his job for it is his life. And so it is most appropriate that he looks at his work and the woman he deeply cares for in the same way. It is such an intelligent and insightful way of portraying a character. Thus, Mr. Stevens qualifies both an enigma and a tragic romantic figure.

Its languid pacing paves the way for viewers to become a part of Mr. Stevens’ lifestyle. Because the protagonist does not say much, especially in terms of what he feels or thinks (he claims it is his job to serve, not to share his opinion or sentiments), it is critical that we are provided a thorough understanding of how he lives. The writing and camera work engage in a steady rhythm, almost like a slow dance, so that almost every scene communicates something important or telling about the character. It is not interested in handholding or spoon-feeding us information; it is there if or when we choose to look.

Here is a melancholic film that engages the mind. It does not attempt to be profound or enlightening, it just is. It simply tells the story in a smart way and it is up to us to extract meaning based on our own education, life experiences, our hopes and fears. It is a very human story lovingly told with perspective, elegance, and grace.