Ivory's initial effort as a filmmaker was Venice: Theme and Variations, a documentary made as his master's thesis at the USC film school that, although only 28 minutes long, is rich in composition and aesthetic texture. Picturesque buildings along the canals are mirrored in the undulating reflection of water below them; a figure in darkened bronze atop a bell tower strikes a huge bell with a long-handled hammer, tolling the hour; boatmen are observed on the lagoons in the bluish haze of dusk. These glimpses of present-day Venice alternate with passages in which the paintings Ivory has photographed accompanied by mood-setting music - from Gabrieli, Vivaldi, Monteverdi, and Chopin - present artists' views of Venice over centuries of time.
Opening sequences consist of the mosaics in St. Mark's and Gentile Bellini's depictions of early Venetians still firm in their faith; and of scenes from Carpaccio, of a lighter narrative line, which draw attention to the daily life being lived in the palazzi and squares of the old city. The changing milieu of Venice is then traced from the sixteenth century, when the city was an important center of wealth and trade, to the eighteenth, portrayed by Guardi and Longhi, when Venice had entered into an irrevocable decline. Ivory admits that it was the eighteenth century "that interested me most, Guardi and Longhi"; and it is a period certainly that offers an unusually rich sense of Venetian society, with its world of the theater, of carnival, and other diversions that give it a strong sense of atmosphere, place and moment. He brings the story of Venice up to our time, via Whistler, and concludes with the cartoonist Saul Steinberg's satirical drawings of today's Venice, with it's armies of tourists, competing tango orchestras in St. Mark's Square, and the ever-present boatmen, now mostly motorized.
Based on the 1910 novel, Howards End is a tour-de-force portrayal of E.M. Forster's masterpiece about a society in transition. The film was named Best Picture of 1992 by the National Board of Review, received nine Academy Award nominations, including that of Best Picture, and was one of the most critically acclaimed pictures of the 90s.
The free-spirited, free-thinking Schlegel sisters, Margaret (played by Emma Thompson, who received an Academy Award for her performance) and Helen (played by Helena Bonham Carter), are swept into a relationship with the Wilcoxes, a wealthy conservative English trading family; and the Basts, a couple near the lowest tier of the Edwardian class system. In an ever deepening palimpsest of relationships and obligations, Margaret must reconcile her irrepressible, independent spirit with her desire for companionship, and Helen must come to terms with her sister's choices and her unexpected passion for a match that, seemingly, should never be.
In a luminous, Oscar-nominated performance, Vanessa Redgrave is Mrs. Wilcox, a matriarch holding fast to a vanishing, remembered England of her childhood at the country house, Howards End. Her husband, Henry Wilcox (played by Anthony Hopkins), is an unyielding traditionalist who must face his own past and the changing world around him. Samuel West brings an assured sensitivity to Leonard Bast, whose aspirations above his class are inspired, and ultimately, rebuked.
Shot on location in England -- from the Hertfordshire countryside to the tenements of London's East End - Howards End won an Art Direction Academy Award for Luciana Arrighi's re-creation of the world known to Forster and his contemporaries. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala received her second Academy Award for her screenplay adaptation, which captures both the quick wit of Bloomsbury parlors and the quiet interiority of Forster's novel.
Ivory's unforgettable translation of Forster's themes into striking images (Mrs. Wilcox's lyrical walk around the house of her childhood; Leonard Bast's sun-drenched fantasies at his insurance clerk's desk), and the performances of an impeccable English cast make Howards End one of the Merchant Ivory team's most moving and perfectly realized films.
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