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Cannes: Vanessa Redgrave and director James Ivory look back on ‘Howard’s End’

May 17, 2016

CANNES, France — The Cannes Film Festival does more than anoint the triumphs of the present, it also celebrates what’s transcendent in the past.

Which is why a crowd of admirers waited patiently in line a few nights ago, a few with autograph books and posters they hoped would be signed, to both see a new 4K restoration of a modern classic, 1992’s “Howards End,” and to do so in the presence of its director James Ivory and its perhaps most ethereal star, Vanessa Redgrave.

Nominated for nine Academy Awards (including best picture as well as nods for Ivory and Redgrave) and winner of three, “Howards End” is a richly emotional story of families in love and conflict that, in addition to Redgrave, stars Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter and Oscar winner Emma Thompson.

The film is also perhaps the high-point of the decades-long Merchant Ivory Productions collaboration of Ivory, vibrant producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, whose resonant script was also one of those Oscar wins.

The reason “Howards End” was restored with a theatrical release on tap is the passion of producer Charles Cohen, whose Cohen Media Group has not only acquired the Merchant Ivory brand but plans to create new films under it.

Partly to publicize the film, and partly one assumes because they clearly enjoy each other’s company, Ivory and Redgrave sat in an immaculate hotel room the day after the screening, talking about everything from their mutual admiration for Pringles (“You can get them even in the most foreign countries,” Ivory noted) to their memories of and reactions to the film today.

For Redgrave, age 79, the screening was extraordinary because she had not seen the film in 25 years. And, to put it mildly, she liked what she saw. “I was overwhelmed, by which I’m meaning to say I was awe-struck and drawn in totally to the narrative of the film,” the actress says, clearly still moved. “Of course, part of my brain knows it’s me, but I believed in the reality of my character. All I can keep saying, stupidly, is it’s wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.”

For director Ivory, age 87, the film is special for more practical reasons. “Any film that is a big success is special, because so few are. This was one I wasn’t dying to make, it wasn’t something I’d thought about for years and years, but Ruth (screenwriter Prawer Jhabvala) urged us on, she felt it was a mountain to climb, so we did.”

More than that, Ivory says, “we didn’t think ‘Howards End’ was all that special while we were making it. Ruth was there for the final editing, as she always was with our films, and walking back to our rooms when we were all done she just said, ‘Well, it is what it is.’”

For the key role of Mrs. Wilcox, a woman of luminous and restrained grace, Ivory said he never had anyone else but Redgrave in mind.

“I imagined Vanessa for that character from Day 1, I thought she was the only person who could play it,” he says. As to why, he turned to the actress and said, “you can look away when I say these things, but Vanessa is a great soul, a great English soul, and it was a case of one great English soul playing another. I didn’t have to think about it all that much except to hope she wasn’t busy.”

Redgrave, for her part, was equally complimentary. “You gave me more than you realized,” she told her director. “What you say can seem to be the tiniest little remark, but when you are playing a part like that all of you is listening, any word is shaping what you’re doing, you’ve become a kind of space station for all the messages that come in.”

Interview time is short in Cannes, and it is the moment to end. Though both Ivory and Redgrave continue to be active (and in fact have just announced a version of Henry James’ “Aspern Papers” that he will executive produce and she will star in with her daughter Joely Richardson) it’s hard not to think of them, as they recede down the hotel corridor, as standard bearers from a golden age that may never return.

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