Howards End (1992): Merchant-Ivory Best Film, Starring Emma Thompson in Oscar Winning Performance

Howards End, based on E.M. Forster’s novel, stands in diametric opposition to most Hollywood movies at present. It is an intelligent, resonant and truly romantic film. It deals with real and timely issues. And it has compelling and engaging characters. In a season marked by mediocrity, Howards End should restore faith in literary cinema. But this sumptuous movie is also good news for those concerned with the bottom line–its 8 million dollar budget constitutes one third of the average cost of an American movie.

Over the past decade, five of Forster’s six novels were adapted to the big screen. At first glance, it may seem strange that Forster has become such a highly produced author. But in many respects, his witty novels, with their clash of manners and conflict of types, are perfect material for the movies. Howards End is no exception. Its concerns are highly relevant: real estate, failing insurance companies, modern marriage, female friendship, and class conflict. Forster also provides great roles for performers, especially actresses, possibly a result of his homosexuality and the fact that, in his childhood, he was surrounded with women.

Set in l9l0, with England on the verge of major change, Howards End chronicles cultural collision between old and new, traditional and modern, upper and lower class. The country farmhouse that gives the movie its title belongs to Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave), a sickly but gentle woman. Upon her death, she leaves Howards End to her new friend, Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson). Will the values of sensibility and tradition that Ruth embodied survive in modern England The new, industrial England belongs to Ruth’s husband, Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins), a patriarch in the rubber trade, and his greedy children. At first, Henry swindles Schlegel out of her inheritance, and then marries her. The old house is a metaphor for England–a symbol of tradition, battered by restless forces for change. For Ruth, it embodies legacy; for the Wilcox clan, it is just a piece of property. An astute observer of the comedy and brutality of English manners, Forster shows how lives can change forever by a glance, a lost umbrella, an accidental meeting.

In Howards End, as in all good films, contents and style are congruent and harmonious. The dominant visual motif, a black locomotive going from the city to the country, illustrates the movie’s chief issues: time moving forward and the ubiquity of change. Another repeated device, sudden fades to black in the middle of key scenes, also serves the narrative well. It makes the scenes more alarming, punctuating them without disrupting their flow.

Despite great acting by both Hopkins and Redgrave, the movie belongs to the lively and outspoken Schlegel sisters, with their political dissidence and emancipated ideas. Helena Bonham Carter is excellent as Helen, the impulsive, rather childish, liberal sister.

As Margaret, Emma Thompson gives a luminous performance that should make her an international star. A charismatic actress, bursting with energy and joy, Thompson conveys an intuitive woman who is also practical and respectful of the security attained with wealth. It is Margaret who unites the pragmatism of the Wilcoxs with the idealism of the Schlegels.

But the narrative’s pivotal character is Leonard Bast (Sam West), the poor clerk who bridges the gap between the two families. Bass sets in motion a series of complications that shift the balance of power and ownership of Howards End from the materialistic Wilcox family to the spirituality of the Schlegel sisters. Bast is also the movie’s tragic hero: dreaming above his station, he becomes the victim of the cruel barriers of class.

Howards End is one of the finest achievements of the team of James Ivory (director), Ismail Merchant (producer), and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (writer). In its longevity (three decades) and productivity (over 15 movies), this collaboration has no parallels. Ivory has become an astute recorder of English manners, a master at showing the real emotions beneath surfaces. In this movie, the filmmaker reveals a particularly sensitive eye for visual details and an unerring ear for the precise sound of the characters.

Jhabvala’s multi-nuanced script, capturing the novel’s complex relationships and moral issues, is also a major accomplishment. Unlike most mainstream movies, Howards End doesn’t revolve around big scenes–there are no set pieces and no forced climaxes. But by the end of the movie, we get to know and understand all the characters well.

The team’s taste and commitment to high-quality cinema, serving the more educated moviegoers, were never in question. However, until A Room with a View (l986), the Merchant-Ivory productions were stately adaptations that lacked a distinctive visual style. Their films (The Europeans, The Bostonians) were reviled for their slow pace, gentility–“Masterpiece Theater” quality. But no more. The sophistication, elegance, and powerful imagery of Howards End make this movie the climax of a long learning process for all three of them.