It’s hard to find a film that is both eloquent and insightful in its search for meaning and nourishment, but Howards End also finds an exemplary balance between sensitivity and pleasure. Remaining faithful to E.M. Forster’s novel, James Ivory 1992 adaptation of this literary classic is a deep exploration into society and the struggle for human connection between social classes.
Margaret (Emma Thompson) and Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) Schlegel are two half-German, middle class sisters living in Edwardian Britain. When Margaret befriends the frail Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave), the mother of Helen’s former love interest, the two ladies find themselves often discussing the Wilcox country home: Howards End. In their talks, Margaret also confides in Ruth the council’s plan to demolish her London home, Wickham Place. Later on, Helen accidentally takes the wrong umbrella at a Beethoven recital, leading to an unexpected acquaintance with the pitiable insurance clerk Leonard Bast (Samuel West). The Schlegel sisters sympathise with Leonard who yearns for a better living for himself and his disreputable partner, Jacky (Nicola Duffett).
Following a critically acclaimed television adaptation of Howards End last year, it seems appropriate to re-examine the sociological implications of public hierarchies that Forster brought to light in his classic novel. When Ruth’s family negate her final wish to leave Howards End to the Schlegals, the lines of morality start to blur and we feel the plot beginning to spin momentously. In the meantime, Ruth’s widower Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins) has a chance encounter with the Schlegel girls and advises them to tell Leonard to quit his job. Inevitably, the affairs get more complicated when Henry finds himself marrying Margaret despite concerns raised by her sister about the ethics of the Wilcox’s.
What is immediately striking about Howards End is the gorgeous cinematography by Tony Pierce-Roberts, where we see the bluebells light up in the dark, giving viewers that chance to admire the English countryside. Similarly, Richard Robbins’ score imitates the omniscient nature of Forster’s narration in his novel. Each of the characters somehow connect with each other and the focal point of these various ties is Margaret. In her Academy Award winning performance, Emma Thompson brings to life the complexities and obscure naivety of Margaret Schlegel who must find reconciliation between the deep-rooted politics of society and her innate passion for her loved ones. It’s a mighty contrast to Hopkins’ snobby Henry Wilcox, who cannot bring himself to admit his errors and later on it is his son Charles (James Wilby) who must atone for his father’s sins.
Of course, it’s too easy to name the Wilcox’s as the villains of the film. They too are victims of social constructs and blind to the injustices of the world they live in. In a pre-World War I Britain, the Schlegel’s presence aroused tensions and anxieties around British nationalism and identity. This was a time of change in Britain as the country veered towards urbanisation and modernity, so there is a huge struggle to find harmony between different ideologies. Howards End was the third Forster novel adapted by Merchant-Ivory Productions and marked the pinnacle of the partnership between director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. The luscious British period dramas like The Remains of the Day (1993) and A Room with a View (1985) continue to define the Merchant-Ivory legacy today.
The tragic ending of Howards End never ceases to confound the senses, no matter how many times I’ve seen it. The senselessness of everything is exposed and Forster’s epitaph: ‘Only Connect’ seems more relevant today than ever. The film is anchored by the masterclass performances along with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Academy Award winning screenplay. In this way, Howards End is truly a magnificent piece of cinema.
by Carlos Tseng