Howards End
First screened in Summer 1993 / Reviewed in April 2002
Director: James Ivory. Cast: Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter, Samuel West, Vanessa Redgrave, James Wilby, Jemma Redgrave, Nicola Duffett, Susie Lindeman, Adrian Ross Magenty, Prunella Scales, Barbara Hicks, Joseph Bennett, Simon Callow. Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (based on the novel by E.M. Forster).

Twitter Capsule: Great literature has rarely been so well-served on screen. Nor have viewers. Thompson, Redgrave, West, script, score...

VOR:   Proof that a directorial style needn't be flashy to perfectly serve its material, and that genteel adaptations need not be prim or stuffy. Complicated humanism, craftily rendered.

Photo © 1992 Merchant Ivory Productions
The wheels of fortune are always turning, but some of us feel it more strongly or more quickly than others. James Ivory probably feels it. In 1992, when Howards End bowed, the names of the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala filmmaking team served as shorthand for what was classy, elegant, principled, and craftsmanly in an increasingly commercial cinema. Ten years later, their most recent literary adaptation (of Henry James' The Golden Bowl) took almost a year to find a U.S. distributor, and their names connote instead what is sluggish, novelistic, and nostalgically reactionary in a world cinema that requires rejuvenation by maverick talent. Even the names Merchant and Ivory, resonating with generations of British imperial plunder, work against the artists' reputations, such that all of their films, including those that were once consensually held to be their best—A Room with a View, Howards End, and The Remains of the Day—are much more fashionable as objects of derision than of awe.

To review and even re-view Howards End, then, is to wander into the middle of all of these loaded conversations. Let us, however, as is our right, narrow the lens a little: let us, for example, admit that The Golden Bowl was a crashing bore, that the British crown has a lot of history to answer for, and that neither the old guard nor the mavericks in the British film industry are providing us with many attractions of late. After all that, we can return to an analytical question. How good is Howards End? What kind of film is it, and how successful is it at actualizing the language of cinema in a way that illuminates a story and releases some set of ideas? Happily, Howards End looks great a decade later, thanks in large part to E.M. Forster's magnificent story structure, but also to a careful management of tone, a canny if muted deployment of visual devices, and a series of intelligent performances that reach, in at least two cases, something like sublimity. If work like this is an embarrassment to British tastemakers, it is the criteria and not the material that merits the blame.

Margaret and Helen Schlegel (Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter) are liberal-minded, chatterboxy sisters of the London middle class, circa 1910, who live with their brother Tibby (Adrian Ross Magenty), modestly but without much pinch, on their inheritance money. In fact, the Schlegels' flat could only be called "modest" by comparison to the born-and-bred largesse of Henry and Ruth Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins and Vanessa Redgrave), who take up one of their many residences in a building across the street from Margaret and Helen. This does not mark the first acquaintance of these families: a year previously, Helen was briefly engaged to the Wilcoxes' son Paul (Joseph Bennett). She has not quite forgotten the pain of Paul's change of heart, but she has by now thrown herself into a bustling urban existence of public lectures, suffragette societies, and tearoom debates. It is at a lecture on "Music and Meaning" that Helen encounters, fatefully, a penniless bank clerk named Leonard Bast (Samuel West). The plot evolves along two arterial channels—Margaret Schlegel grows increasingly fascinated by the tony Wilcoxes, while Helen feels scrupulously drawn to the impoverished Basts—that eventually multiply into a dozen capillary exchanges among even the most far-flung social actors.

Howards End, then, is an obvious organum of classified society in a given time and place. Yes, Ivory's picture is the kind of film in which we know Leonard is poor and tragic because his wife Jackie (Nicola Duffett) has a frizzy perm and because their apartment is all papered in garish red. However, the criticisms that often ensue from remarks like these—that the filmmakers are haughty aesthetes who see people in relation to objects; that the films are quietistic descents into production design, such that ideology is totally submerged within décor—are wholly dissonant with the spirit and form of Forster's project. The Schlegels, the Wilcoxes, and the Basts are obvious archetypes, and their battles for place and space on English soil (the title of Howards End refers, crucially, to a realty property) are an unconcealed parable of stratified rivalry. To accuse Merchant and Ivory of an untoward obsession with class markers, or to upbraid Forster for the overtness of his symbolism, is to miss entirely that the chosen mode of Howards End is the allegorical, no less than in Pilgrims Progress or Ragtime or Written on the Wind. Accusations of schematic transparency are not just inaccurate; they aren't even accusations, but unconscious recognitions, since schematization is precisely what Forster and his translators are up to.

For the same reason, a film like Howards End couldn't possibly disguise its social content beneath a crust of aesthetic adornment, since objective possessions and ceremonial display are themselves the key language in which these characters describe themselves, and in which speak to each other. Margaret and Ruth express friendship and trust by shopping together for gifts. Helen intentionally offends Henry by carting ill-clothed guests into his daughter's wedding reception. The younger Wilcoxes are horrified at the implications of an outsider crossing the threshold of a family home. Even the characters' names become things, fetish objects engraved on portable cards and tucked into books for future, secretive relishment. That these sorts of scenes and details have become conventions of period filmmaking should not diffuse (or, indeed, defuse) the dominant cultural priorities that make them possible. It is not the film's fault if people watch it with a lazy eye on furniture for furniture's sake, rather than rooting out the implications of how each character offers, hordes, swipes, misplaces, conceals, flaunts, and fights for what he or she owns.

From here, we are only a short way from the point when the characters will seek to own each other, and in these vyings for power, Ivory and his cast and crew are confronted with their deepest challenges as embodiers of Forster's ideas. As everyone knows, much of what disappears in translating novels onto film is the capacity for interior revelation and psychological richness. In a case like Howards End, the cinematic actors and images must be pressed to demonstrate economically and exactly the abstract thought and complex motivation with which Forster enriches the parabolic foundation of his story. Thankfully, it is in these areas that Howards End finds its greatest successes—Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has fashioned a tight, clear adaptation of the novel, but without the discipline of the cast and the cinematographer, this material wouldn't work.

As it happens, the material works best in its opening hour, especially in the interplay between Margaret Schlegel and Ruth Wilcox. To crib from Yeats, Howards End demonstrates that "the center doesn't hold," that the sympathies and investments of the middle-class Schlegel sisters each drift toward one or the other extreme on the social scale. Because Helen's drift is so well substantiated by plot mechanics and popular ethical sensibility, Margaret's behavior is trickier to play. How and why does this emancipated female become so absorbed in a world infused with conspicuous consumption and hegemonic politics of exactly the kind she herself resists? Formal constraints make the film of Howards End less eloquent on these points than the novel, but the consummate playing of Emma Thompson, in her Oscar-winning and star-making role, very nearly closes that distance. Thompson scatters emotional intimations all over her performance. Her complicated facial expressions as she watches the Wilcoxes become her neighbors have a short-term referent (how will this event affect Helen?) but they also lay the mental groundwork for her enigmatic decisions an hour further into the film. Resolutely, she plays her emotions when a woman as smart and as socially perspicacious as Margaret would feel them, not when an audience four generations in the future thinks to look for them—so, for example, she stashes her bashful response to Henry Wilcox's romantic advances not into the scene of his "surprise" marriage proposal but in an earlier moment, when he performs a small act of practical kindness that seems to us, but not to Margaret, unrelated to romantic intention.

Vanessa Redgrave, in the brief role of Ruth Wilcox, is equally exquisite, a fact of considerable irony when one realizes that the onetime symbol of British counter-cultural radicalism has crystallized onscreen the dreams and adorations of its know-Nothing Edwardian regency. Ruth dies early, and Redgrave is left with only a few scenes in which to register her character: walking on the grounds of Howards End, confiding in Margaret her barely-there politics and childhood memories. Again, though, the actress uses the codes of the past, not the present, as the compass for her performance, and so she makes (as Ruth would, unconsciously) a tiny, articulate event out of every encounter with a material object. The different gestures with which Redgrave responds to a laurel branch, a cherry, a train token, an escalator, a coach, a pencil, and an imaginary pig's tooth tell us all we could hope to know about Ruth Wilcox, what feels familiar and unfamiliar to her, what comforts her even in the knowledge of her death. Given the fineness of their playing, the scenes between Thompson and Redgrave are the film's most memorable, though Helena Bonham Carter animates Helen's impetuosity much more artfully than she did Lucy's younger, greener version in A Room with a View; Hopkins sculpts with a few careful mannerisms a notable creep, a man as far divorced from Stevens the Butler as he is from Hannibal Lecter; and Samuel West and James Wilby are effective in earlier versions of the scowlers and snobs they more recently played in Iris and Gosford Park.

I am wary, though, of perpetuating the impression that films like Howards End, even when successful, are essentially novels brought to life by good acting. James Ivory is a movie director, not a drama coach or a curator, and though he has his vicissitudes—a montage of droopy flowers when Ruth dies and two slow-motion shots related to a climactic crime and its punishment are all unrecuperably coarse—Howards End on the whole is a uniquely well-orchestrated affair. Again, the scenes with Ruth Wilcox offer a revealing instance: beyond the simple, appropriate serenity of her opening stroll, watch how Ivory first encases Ruth in shots crammed with material excess (her cushions, her cases, her lamps) and gradually frames her against sparer and sparer fields. The subtraction of objects from Ruth's perimeter is a perfect encryption of this repressed woman's secretive decline. Other felicities: some Expressionist angles in Henry's marriage-proposal scene supply the needed tinge of discomfort. A compressed but distinct sense of humor, principally within the Schlegels' domicile but extending to a dramatic conversation about Henry's past, shelter Howards End from emotional remoteness (and also remind us that E.M. Forster was no stuffed shirt). The score Ivory has commissioned from Richard Robbins makes brave use of repeated motifs, high-volume recording, and bold crescendos; we never hear a stronger chord than that which plays over the opening title, a suitable choice for a film whose disparate characters universally reminisce about bygone glories.

I mentioned Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind earlier in a list of "allegorical" texts to which Howards End might reasonably be compared, and I'd like to end by substantiating this perhaps unintuitive connection. Sirk, another director whose contemporaries typically undersold his gifts, was famous for crafting lavishly pathetic fables of social stratification, female resiliency, and objective over-investment. (These days, his Imitation of Life with Lana Turner is the best-known example.) I think the film Howards End is best understood and enjoyed on this level—a carefully outfitted, smartly assembled soap opera with plangent social ideas undergirding its hyperbolic narrative. Don't get me wrong; I still think Sirk is a more interesting director than Ivory, perhaps because Howards End is the only one of the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala products to invite the comparison. Henry James can hardly be rendered this way, which helps to explain why The Golden Bowl and even The Bostonians seem so hamstrung by comparison. But we come to praise a single film, not to bury a director's canon, and freed from the subtending contexts that impugn its good name, Howards End is a worthy accomplishment: a portrait, and not an instance, of an England fueled by repressed guilts and dubious choices. Grade: A

(in Spring 1993: A; in April 2002, when this review was written: A–)

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: James Ivory
Best Actress: Emma Thompson
Best Supporting Actress: Vanessa Redgrave
Best Adapted Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Best Cinematography: Tony Pierce-Roberts
Best Art Direction: Luciana Arrighi; Ian Whittaker
Best Costume Design: Jenny Beaven & John Bright
Best Original Score: Richard Robbins

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: James Ivory
Best Actress (Drama): Emma Thompson
Best Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Other Awards:
Cannes Film Festival: 45th Anniversary Prize
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Actress (Thompson)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Actress (Thompson)
National Society of Film Critics: Best Actress (Thompson)
Chicago Film Critics Association: Best Actress (Thompson)
National Board of Review: Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actress (Thompson)
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Picture; Best Actress (Thompson)

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