Sony Classics (1992) 140 min. PG
Director: James Ivory
Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala; based on novel by E.M. Forster
Cinematography: Tony Pierce-Roberts; Editing: Andrew Marcus
Production Design: Luciana Arrighi; Set Decoration: Ian Whittaker
Costumes: Jenny Beavan & John Bright; Score: Richard Robbins
Stars: Anthony Hopkins (Henry Wilcox), Vanessa Redgrave (Ruth Wilcox), Helena Bonham Carter (Helen Schlegel), Emma Thompson (Margaret Schlegel), Samuel West (Leonard Bast), James Wilby (Charles Wilcox), Nicola Duffett (Jacky Bast), Barbara Hicks (Miss Avery), Prunella Scales (Aunt Juley)
Merchant Ivory’s moody 1992 masterpiece is an intensely observed examination of intersecting classes in an Edwardian England poised on the cusp of change. The comfortably situated, middle class Schlegel sisters, Margaret (Emma Thompson) and Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) are emancipated women at a time when equal rights were becoming the new fashion. However they find themselves in increasing conflict with an influential, upper class family headed by conservative Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins), who will contest their claim to Howards End, the country estate bequeathed to Margaret by Henry’s first wife, Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave). Taken from E.M. Forster’s carefully plotted novel by longtime Merchant Ivory scenarist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, this erudite literary adaptation retains the compulsive fascination of a well spun yarn.
Exquisitely textured, Howards End is the quintessence of master craftsmanship and the seminal work of one of the cinema’s most celebrated collaborative teams. The American director James Ivory, his Indian producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a German-born Jew who immigrated to Britain during the second World War, together comprised what was called ‘the wandering company.’ The name evokes images of strolling minstrels and theater in the park, which is apt enough considering the independent group first established itself with the black and white, 1965 classic Shakespeare Wallah, about just such a troupe of roaming, journeyman players. Over the next three decades, the peripatetic films of Merchant Ivory were set in countries all over the world and in widely divergent eras, including the present day. Following the release of their surprise art house hit The Europeans in 1979 however, the group began cultivating a predilection for genteel period pieces.
Merchant Ivory had already made their way through another Henry James novel The Bostonians when they were distracted by a different author’s leather-bound collector’s set. If one were to conjecture, it may have been the success of David Lean’s grand, ambitious adaptation of A Passage to India, released the same year as The Bostonians, that motivated them to suddenly start making films from E.M. Forster. Certainly it must have galled Merchant Ivory, who had spent the majority of their working lives in India, turning out tomes on native culture and post-colonial themes like The Householder, The Guru, Bombay Talkie, Autobiography of a Princess, The Courtesans of Bombay and Heat and Dust to have Lean, who had no standing ties to the country, swoop in and show them up with his splashy, colorful epic. A Passage to India could have been another Merchant Ivory masterpiece (Satyajit Ray had also expressed interest in filming the book at one point), but having lost that golden opportunity, they seemed set on not letting it happen again. Lighting from James to Forster they secured the movie rights to as many of his works as possible.
Though there wouldn’t seem much difference on the surface between the two authors’ equally civilized treatises on class and propriety, in retrospect Merchant Ivory made a smart move. They immediately delivered on Forster’s promise with the release of their first major crossover success, A Room with a View in 1986, but miscalculated with Maurice, their daring Forster follow up the next year. While critically admired, Maurice failed to repeat A Room with a View’s commercial success and it would be a half decade before Merchant Ivory worked up the courage to try their hand at another Forster adaptation. By that time their movies had become synonymous with cinematic taste and refinement, and Howards End initially appeared just another prestige piece angled toward the art house market. Produced independently for a ridiculously modest sum, when released in early March its appeal spread beyond Masterpiece Theater fans however.
Howards End is about the industrial revolution, class conflict, feminism, the diverse social forces that would help form the fabric of the 20th century. Jhabvala’s meditative script contains a lot of deep thoughts and despite a generally irreverent tone, there’s a glinting, somber undercurrent running throughout. The movie begins misleadingly in bedroom farce with Helen and Paul, the youngest Wilcox son, partaking in a midnight rendezvous at Howards End. It’s something they immediately regret come the sobering dawn, with Paul setting off to retrieve the impetuous telegram Helen sent her sister, informing her of their engagement. His attempt to reach the telegraph office by bicycle and send a wire that plans have changed places him in a dead heat with the train carrying the Schlegel’s aunt Juley and the motorcar the older Wilcox son, Charles, commandeers to shuttle her to Howards End. Director Ivory leads us a merry chase, placing all these modern means of conveyance on a collision course, in a desperate bid to avert a potentially compromising situation.
While seemingly innocuous diversion, such prelude serves its purpose. It is priming us for the movie’s major themes concerning man’s futile effort to outrun the inexorable hands of time and how the changing times are irreparably altering the character of the country. Howards End possesses a plangent longing for the faded gentility of bygone days. The leisurely pace at which life moved is being supplanted by the hectic tempo of modern, industrialized urban life. The movie repeatedly stresses the speed at which the world is spinning by placing its characters in relation to the clock. Traveling down to Howards End to get a look at the man her niece intends to marry, for instance, Aunt Juley asks for the train schedule. Later, Helen will leave the lecture hall early after checking her watch, prompting clerk Leonard Bast to hurry after her. The beginning has a bicycling Paul neck and neck with motoring Charles, whereas the tragic ending pivots on Leonard, who’s traveling by foot, striving to reach Howards End before Helen and Meg have finished packing up to depart.
When Margaret makes her initial call on the Wilcoxes in London, saying she’s wanted to “for ever so long,” Ruth, keenly conscious of sand slipping through the hourglass, corrects “But we haven’t been here for ever so long.” Things seem to be moving too fast, disorienting traditionalists and throwing them off balance, making time seem increasingly of the essence. The camera is arrested by the timepiece on the Wilcox mantle striking the hour, an image replaced by that of the train station clock, as Margaret makes a last minute dash to join Ruth on her excursion. Ruth’s own heightened sensitivity to the preciousness of time is accentuated by the fact that she doesn’t have much of it left. On the brink of eternity she muses “I think about my house a great deal,” and sharing her love of home with Margaret, confides a desire to see it once more before she dies.
The changing times are altering the face of England itself. We’re shown an impermanent London with residences being repossessed and demolished on all sides and replaced with characterless, ugly flats and apartment complexes, eyesores blighting the landscape. With houses built on such shifting sands, displaced persons are left drifting in search of new pastures to put down roots. As Meg relates after being turned out of Wickham Place, “Modern ownership of movables is reducing us again to a nomadic horde, we are reverting to a civilization of luggage.” Such uncertain accommodations promote an increasingly itinerant existence. With newer and faster means of transportation like trains and motorcars making inroads, mobility has become such a well-oiled machine that no one remains fixed to where they were born anymore. They can easily keep in contact by wire and telephone as Helen does when she mysteriously disappears, her absence filled in by postcards, letters and telegrams. While Ruth truly loves England, even she admits to not caring for London, “None of us love London… it makes one feel so unstable, impermanent, with houses being torn down on all sides.”
The city itself seems to be in her death throes. To emphasize the fact, editor Andrew Marcus quick cuts to breathlessly paced scenes of teeming street life congested with hansom cabs and horse drawn carriages draped in black as though heralding a funeral procession. Promenading past the camera, they’re accompanied by the dirge-like notes of Richard Robbins’ musical score. The odd, elusive editing rhythms are unusual for such a classically structured film in that they purposely draw attention to themselves. Scenes fade in and out to bridge time lapses, such as during Margaret’s lunch date with Henry and the later reconciliation scene when she assures him that his past is “not going to trouble us.” The movie slips back and forth between the representative classes as it winds its stately way toward interweaving them. Howards End’s shifting plotlines and temporal inconsistency serve to enhance our sense of the ephemeral.
In an increasingly transitory, urban existence, the ancestral estate of Howards End is the only thing that seems permanent, giving Ruth a sense of stability, which is why she takes on about it so. Commiserating with Margaret over the housing shortage, she waxes nostalgic “Howards End was almost pulled down once. It would’ve killed me.” The way she states with such glowing emphasis “I lived there long, long before I was married. I was born there,” it’s clear that Howards End is the last living link to her past, the person Ruth was before she became Mrs. Wilcox and lost her individual identity. It’s the only thing left to her name that she can truly call her own (“It’s my house you know. It was left to me by my brother who died out in India.”). When she speaks of Howards End, it’s in flights of poetic fancy, “To West of the house, just beyond the chestnut tree, in the paddock, where the pony used to be.” With the pony that used to serve as their principle means of transport dead, a garage has replaced the paddock, just as we’re watching the passing of the buggy trade as it gives way to the horseless carriage.
While technology and mass communication reduces the world to a global village, modern urban life with its noisy, grimy, graceless hustle and bustle, increasingly pushes the classes into closer contact. Such proximity generates antagonism and animosity, so conflicts similar to the comedy of errors that opens the picture are bound to reoccur, even if Ivory’s politely civil take on the class struggle tends to blunt the effect. What begins as a relatively trivial misunderstanding between Helen and Paul continues to spiral out from that centrifugal point into a clash of wills between the pragmatic Wilcoxes and the romantic Schlegels and, by extension, between right and left, conservative and liberal, rich and poor, men and women, even art and commerce. Selling the Wilcoxes on her family, Aunt Juley earlier gushed, “All the Schegels are exceptional. They are of course British to the backbone, but their father was German, and that is why they care for literature and art.” It’s as though culture were a decadent foreign concept to be regarded with suspicion by the pragmatic English mind. “They take poetry seriously, they do take poetry seriously, the Germans are always striving for beauty,” one guest at Margaret’s lunch gathering opinions. While Margaret relates to Mrs. Wilcox, “My father was a German of the old school, a philosopher, an idealist, the countryman of Hegel and Kant.” In the movie’s terms, this means the Schlegels are made of finer fiber and more delicate sensibility that the staid, unimaginative Wilcoxes. Though the Schlegels only met the Wilcoxes the previous spring, they are never able to shake them. “We’ve met far more interesting people,” Helen bemoans, “but the Wilcoxes are the only ones that stuck.” It’s so overcrowded in London that the affluent family can find no other flat to rent for their son’s wedding except the one smash up against the Schlegels at Wickham Place.
“One wouldn’t want to keep bumping into Wilcoxes,” they agree, but despite their best efforts to avoid one another they’re fated to, as the hand of Forster would have it. As events converge, the classes are left to clash like cymbals at the crescendo. Tony Pierce-Roberts’ cinematography links the haves and have-nots visually when his camera pans across the edifice of Howards End, observing through the windows the activity of those inside, the wealthy Wilcoxes relaxing in the drawing room then lingering on the toiling servants clearing away supper. The Schlegel calling card given the lower class Leonard segues into the following scene where it’s seen being read by upper class Ruth to announce Margaret’s visit.
But while the story goes out of its way to orchestrate events that bring the classes together, Howards End was shot in widescreen, the first time Merchant Ivory used the technique, to emphasize the space and distance between social strata in English society. The gulf between the Wilcox and Schlegel families is perfectly summed up when Henry tells them that employers are more inclined to hire someone who already has a position, “Human nature I’m afraid.” To which Margaret replies “Our human nature appears to be quite the other way round. We employ people because they’re unemployed.” The arty, eccentric Schlegels are odd ducks by conservative Wilcox standards. Shocking society with their unconventionality, Aunt Juley throws up her hands at her liberated nieces with a scandalized “Well, you Schlegel girls!” and Charles likewise huffs and puffs in exasperation at their freethinking ways, sneering in disgust “What a family! God help the pater!” They talk socialism within earshot of the servants who humor them, while still being enjoined to wait on them hand and foot. (“Your servants have become as unreliable as we are. We can hardly expect them to listen to radical discussions at the luncheon table,” one guest cautions.) While agreeably daft with their endless swirl of charities and modern, progressive movements, the Schlegels remain relatively harmless until they try to put their philanthropic theories to practical use, becoming patron to a representative member of the lower classes, poor bank clerk Leonard Bast, in order to improve his station in life. Based on a confidential tip from Henry Wilcox that the insurance firm where Leonard works is on the verge of bankruptcy, they prevail upon him to quit his steady job and seek out other employment. Despite being in a position to help him, their well meaning intentions end up doing more harm than good (“A man who had little money has less now owing to us… thanks to us, he’s done for, we’ve ruined him.”), making it clear that they’re simply dabblers in the causes they express such commitment to. These amateur uplifters take Leonard on as if he were a pet project, toying with his economic security while remaining financially solvent themselves with their generous annuities. Not having to work for a living, they can afford to play at the Reform Movement since they’re safely sheltered from the merciless economic forces that so indifferently crush the Basts.
The opening development section involving the failed romance, unfolds like the first movement of a symphony. This just suits the picture since the younger Schlegel sister, Helen, is played by Helena Bonham Carter, whose Lucy Honeychurch in Merchant Ivory’s adaptation of A Room with a View, expressed her passions through the piano. For his part, Joseph Bennett’s Paul is made up to resemble Julian Sands in that picture, while events are similarly instigated by a reckless moment of passionate abandon between them. The illicit kiss shared at the beginning by these two well bred young members of the English gentry was likely meant to invoke viewer’s fond memories of the earlier film as much as Helen’s association with playing piano. Ruth and Margaret’s strolls over the picturesque grounds of Howards End are accompanied by the sparse notes of tickled ivories as well, while Robbins’ Oscar-nominated musical arrangements serve to bridge Helen’s two love affairs with men from the upper and lower echelons. Following her muddle with Paul, she’s next seen at a concert hall sitting beside Leonard, listening to the classical selections illustrating a lecture on ‘Music and Meaning.’
A Room with a View used Italy to symbolize freedom and liberation from English mores and social constraints. In that movie, Bonham Carter’s character spent the entire film trying to stifle the improper passions throbbing beneath her respectable bosom. Here, she’s so lacking in inhibitions, she seems nothing but unloosed passion. As she assures Leonard, “Were not odd really, were just over-expressive,” but Mr. Wilcox considers her a noodle for behaving so freely. She lacks the prudence to think before she acts, which is how she wound up ‘engaged’ to Paul. When he apologizes for losing his head the previous night she reassures him in all honesty that they both did. Nor does Helen bother to think before she speaks, inadvertently insulting Leonard’s shabby umbrella by describing it as all gone along the seams. It’s her unthinking impulsiveness that leads her to try and improve Leonard’s lot, heedless to any possible complications in passing on Henry’s bad advice. When she learns he’s taken their warning to heart, and promptly lost his new position leaving him out on the streets, Helen’s sense of justice is outraged. Though she responds with open indignation, unlike her sister we’re on her side because she’s the only character with the bravura to act on the anger impulse audiences feel over the situation themselves, speaking our mind for us. As with Bonham Carter’s Lucy Honeychurch, her Helen’s very familiar, contemporary emotions connect with today’s viewers in a direct way the other characters don’t. She seems very modern indeed, as she’s meant to. We admire her for being the one person to see her unpopular cause through by continuing to sponsor the Basts after they’ve been forsaken by everybody else. While Margaret agrees that they owe them restitution, Henry tells Helen “You’re not to blame. No one’s to blame,” to which she retorts “Is no one to blame for anything?” Helen is the only person to take full responsibility for the part she played in the Bast’s ruin. She tries to make amends by paying punitive damages, “I feel, no I know, we owe the Basts some compensation… don’t see who’s to pay if I don’t…it’s useless just giving out driblets of charity, just shillings and blankets.” She shows the fortitude and moral integrity she romantically attributes to Leonard when she compares him to Wilcox, saying he’s the opposite of Henry because he believes “in personal responsibility and accountability, whereas it would never enter that man’s mind that he’d done anything wrong.”
Helen and Margaret bear superficial resemblance to the two sisters who embark on contrasting love affairs in D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love and the actresses playing them share such a strong rapport it’s distressing to learn of their off set strife later in the decade when Bonham Carter took up with Thompson’s husband. Director Ivory stated he saw the sisters, who finish each other’s sentences and thoughts, as two halves of one whole. One picks up where the other leaves off so separating them is like cleaving Siamese twins. Having always believed she and Margaret would remain true to themselves by growing into dotty old spinsters together, Helen feels betrayed and shut out when her sister throws her over for the unworthy likes of Henry Wilcox. With Margaret having reneged her own independence, her sister is left alone and lost. Now there seems something distressingly amiss with not being married herself. When asked “Why are you so bitter, dear?” she answers truthfully, “Because I’m an old maid.” Now it’s Helen who glumly stares out the window at Mr. and Mrs. Wilcox canoodling on Aunt Juley’s lawn, just as we’d seen Margaret doing earlier when she peeped across the courtyard on Ruth and Henry’s happiness. Her husband’s refusal to help the Basts creates a rift in Margaret’s close relationship with her sister, leaving Helen drifting aimlessly after having slipped her moorings. Helen’s obsessive state makes it seem she’s championing the cause of the common man for reasons other than simple altruism. Without a family of her own any longer, she is redirecting all her confused, angry emotions in public demonstrations protesting the Bast’s bad treatment. So it’s easy to see how Leonard might get the wrong idea, misconstruing her intentions and questioning her interest in him (“And why should you want to help me?” – “Because we like you, you noodle!”). Helen has always given so freely of herself, it seems expected that her sweeping love for humanity should begin spilling over into more focused feelings for this one representative example. She says she’d do anything to help Leonard, but when she has nothing else to offer, all she can do to make him feel better is have his baby. Unable to save the man himself, Helen can at least provide the small compensation of bringing the next generation of little Basts into the world in hopes that the social order will be kinder to his son. Misguided though she may be, she’s making an effort to reconstitute a family of her own. And having already deprived Leonard of so much else, she refuses to ask anything further by informing him of her pregnancy, telling her sister, “I alone must be responsible for myself and this child. And I want to be,” a very radical thing to do at the time (and still a pretty radical thing to do when the movie was released, not long before vice president Dan Quayle’s public denunciation of TV’s Murphy Brown for having a baby out of wedlock). Rather than forcing the father to marry at gunpoint, as the Wilcoxes insist, she’s willing instead to defy a society that shuns unwed mothers. Helen’s condition encapsulates why conservatives believed feminism, with its creed of sexual equality translating as free love without commitment, to be such a dangerous doctrine. They feared it would result in an aberrant epidemic of unmarried mothers, undermining the family structure and breaking down the fabric of society. More to the point, the increase in illegitimate births would unduly confuse the legal question of ancestry and inheritance which lie at the heart of Howards End.
Howards End was made back when Helena Bonham Carter was still being cast as the ideal English miss, in movies like Lady Jane, Where Angels Fear to Tread, A Room with a View, Twelfth Night, The Wings of the Dove and Henry VIII before she appeared as the bride in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, married Tim Burton and went bonkers. Often cast in costume dramas, she’d earned herself a reputation as a ‘corset queen,’ and one can easily see why. She looks the part with the round, kewpie doll features of an earlier era, the sort silent actresses used to have. When her ungovernable passions begin to get the better of her, and her long, lustrous hair streams down around bloodshot eyes rimmed with mascara, she could pass for Theda Bara. And like those vamps of old, she’ll go on luring Leonard down the wayward path toward his ignominious end despite herself. Haunted by a guilty conscience over having led him astray, she starts looking like a strung out frazzle immersed in an all-enveloping cloud of chain smoke with a tangle of flyaway hair and dark circles under bleary eyes. Even this early, the actress gives intimations of the dark, Gothic ladies of ill-repute she’s since come to prefer playing in films like Fight Club, Planet of the Apes, The Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows, Great Expectations, Les Misérables, The Lone Ranger and the Harry Potter series. Before this, Bonham Carter had more frequently played women whose high strung emotional instability got the better of them, taking them to the brink of madness. When they loved, they gave all of themselves, falling completely off the deep end and into the emotional abyss. They came undone by love in true Dionysian fashion. Woven from the same tapestry, her Helen is woman as creature of pure feeling. As Margaret cautions, “You have less restraint rather than more as you get older. Think it over Helen and alter yourself, or we shan’t have happy lives.” She’s always in danger of going too far. In her relationship with her older, wiser more prudent sister, the actress seems to be winding her way toward a variation on Sense and Sensibility, which Emma Thompson would adapt for the screen and appear in three years later. All willfulness and exposed nerves, Kate Winslet played Thompson’s younger sister in that film, and like Bonham Carter she too, not coincidentally, would go on to interpret drama’s grandest unstrung daughter, Ophelia in Hamlet. Bonham Carter played the part in Mel Gibson’s 1990 adaptation, and Winslet in the 1996 version staged by Kenneth Branagh. When Helen names the exorbitant sum she intends to give the penniless Basts to settle accounts, she acknowledges “No doubt people will think me mad.” Indeed. The unimaginative Henry’s idea of madness is to describe one as being “highly strung, musical, literary, artistic,” so Helen already has several marks against her (“Your sister is odd, she always has been. There’s no getting away from it.”). England’s national character is one of stoic reserve, a country of stiff upper lips, so in terms of the stuffy times, the wanton spectacle Helen creates makes her seem completely batty. Journeying down to Shropshire with the Basts in tow to confront Margaret during the wedding of Henry’s daughter, Helen responds to her startled sister’s accusation with an outburst “If you like I’m mad, but I’ll stand for this no longer, two people starving and meanwhile all this vulgar show.” After she buries herself in Germany, refusing to return to England despite her concerned family’s pleas, Margaret consults with her young brother Tibby over the stark change in character. Though he ascribes Helen’s behavior to tempestuousness his sister is not so sure, fretting that “This is not temperament but a kind of madness, as if she were mad.”
Like the English habitués of the Italian pensione in A Room with a View, the Schlegels and Wilcoxes are acquainted with one another through their travels abroad, having originally met while hiking in Germany. They visit foreign countries, appreciating the art and cultural history but unlike the Schlegels, the snobbish Wilcoxes turn up their nose at the thought of soaking up the local color or mixing with the natives socially. While Margaret relates a romantic anecdote about an Italian stranger who handed a rose across to her from a passing train, Ruth reveals that her son Charles is on his honeymoon abroad with the xenophobic codicil that “he loves (to travel), but he sees through foreigners so.” People in their position can’t afford to keep such company and these exclusive practices extend to the English commoner of their own country. While the Schlegels try to bridge the gap by taking up with Leonard socially, Margaret relates that Henry “feels the Basts are not at all the type we should trouble about.” What’s distressing is that the movie’s own elitist view of the lower classes seems in keeping with the Wilcoxes.
I have my reservations regarding the way in which Howards End makes its sociological plea for the poor always being with us while simultaneously depicting Leonard’s wife as a complete caricature. This Rubenesque Jacky, with her wild head of scarlet hair and voluptuously fleshy figure spilling out of her corset, has the coloring of some Can-Can dancer conceived by Toulouse-Lautrec. Overweight and uneducated (when she frets that “People do get killed and don’t come home no more,” Leonard corrects her mispronunciation, “Anymore, Jacky,” as though he were Henry Higgins), the unfortunate character comes across like an exaggerated grotesque. The director wastes no time trying to turn her into a feasible construct, instead playing her for condescending comedy the way cockneys and servants historically have been in British movies. When Jacky calls on Margaret in search of her missing husband, she’s made out to be an absurd figure, and the Schlegels aren’t the only ones having a laugh at her expense. Putting on airs as she later will during the wedding reception, she has too much pride to come up to the drawing room to see them, forcing them to come down to her, lowering them to her level in a sense, same as she has Leonard with her fish wife accusations.
The implication is that his relationship with this tawdry magpie with her inherent lack of class is what has ruined the sensitive, respectable Leonard. She keeps him from realizing his aspirations to culture same as she’s seen luring him away from his book into bed. And if one were to question what two such incompatible people are doing together, the director shows us the sexual hold she has over him as the lights from a train passing outside throw ominous chiaroscuro patterns over their entwined bodies. The visual makes Leonard’s relations with this seductive siren seem erotically charged, electrifyingly dangerous, as though he’d touched the third rail. Forster’s book was written in 1910 and the strait-laced Edwardian attitude to such unsanctified sin seems to have been carried directly over into the movie’s mindset. This illicit love nest is steeped in plush, passionate purples and deep, throbbing reds, garishly clashing with the movie’s subdued autumnal earth tones and soothing pastel shades.
Naïvely idealistic little Leonard falls in love with the first woman he has sex with despite the fact that she’s not at all the marrying kind. Chivalrously assuring Jacky that he’ll make an honest woman of her the day he’s of legal age, once the bad match is made he’s too honorable to ever skip out on her. Though the innocent Helen worries that Paul Wilcox will point out her house “and say ‘there lives the girl who tried to catch me,’ ” it’s Jacky who seems determined to bag herself a man. The movie fails to fill in her side of the story, suggesting that her desperate desire to hold on to Leonard might have something to do with the fact that he is the only thing standing between her and a life of prostitution. Since the script doesn’t care to elaborate on what becomes of Jacky after his death, we’re left to assume that that’s a good enough fate for such guttersnipes. Ivory’s uncalled for indelicacy violates the movie’s otherwise impeccable good taste. It smacks of elitist condescension and certainly doesn’t seem intended to endear viewers to the working class whose rights Howards End claims to be asserting, anymore than Merchant Ivory’s high-end period pieces, with their patina of prestige, seem designed to attract them. If Leonard weren’t so noble and cultured, if he were as vulgar as his wife, one wonders if we would be expected to care at all for his downward spiraling economic circumstances. Certainly the movie, through its depiction of Jacky, seems to write off the lumpenproletariat en masse, holding out hope only for the rare, gifted, artistically inclined individual capable of rising above the herd. Leonard is romantically linked to Helen as a means of diluting his destitution. Elevated by his associations, he’s permitted to issue forth offspring free of social stigma. The way the story is slanted, the poor are bred right out of the picture, with Helen rather than Jacky deemed worthy of bringing Leonard’s child into the world.
It is love of art that proves the great social leveler. The affair of Helen and Leonard doesn’t begin with them introduced socially, but as strangers sitting beside one another at a public concert hall. Like Helen’s earlier entanglement with Paul, their initial encounter results from Helen’s unthinking impulsiveness. She absent mindedly absconds with Leonard’s umbrella, leaving him caught in the rain. With only a sopping newspaper for protection, he’s repeatedly forced off the sidewalk by other pedestrians and into the gutter. Having so obliviously left Leonard out in the cold with no cover from the downpour, she’s deprived him of shelter and security just as surely as she later will when she convinces him to leave his job. It sets a bad precedent for their subsequent relationship. When Leonard goes to inquire after another position, the camera is placed in perspective as the teller looks down on him dismissively from a superior height. “The way they look at you when you come to ask,” he shivers, “They’re sure you’ve stolen something or why else would any decent person be out of work?” Samuel West, the son of actress Prunella Scales who appears here as Aunt Juley, has made many, many films in the past twenty years (most recently, Hyde Park on Hudson with Bill Murray and Laura Linney) and won acclaim for his stage work. But he is still most fondly remembered for his appearance in Howards End, and I’m not sure that could be said of any of the other principals. The nasal intonations he affects are tinged with such broad cockney slips (“I left my office and walked. Roite ou’ a London.”), his poor Leonard might be mistaken for a character out of Dickens, satirically undermining his refined airs. With furrowed brow Bast, trapped and embarrassed as he is by his circumstances, anticipates the British working class, angry young man of later generations. Only he hasn’t accessed the raging class resentment that would characterize other essayists in that genre, the sort found in Look Back in Anger and Room at the Top. Instead, he’s touchy and overly sensitive, half expecting to be turned out of doors when the Schlegels discomfit him by asking about his people. He’s mortified to tell them he comes from a long line of simple farmers, putting a proud spin on the term by describing them as ‘agricultural laborers,’ but they couldn’t have been very robust peasants if their line has been reduced to such a wanly poetic sort as Leonard in a few short generations. Pinched by his poverty, Leonard is so intensely conscious of his straits it’s a welcome relief when he breaks into a fit of giggles at scene’s end. Such carefree feelings appear foreign to him, so we aren’t sure at first what the hissing sound is issuing from his throat. He might be hyperventilating instead of going into tittering hysterics at the heady thrill of hobnobbing with such swells.
Neglecting to mention Helen’s presence and downplaying where he’s been so as not to arouse Jacky’s ire, Leonard tells her Margaret is just a lady he met (“Oh, a loidy. La-dee-dah.”), and that she’s a hundred years old. Henry’s daughter Evie (Jemma Redgrave) similarly characterizes Meg unkindly as “an old maid type,” and with her anxious nattering, fluttery maiden aunt mannerisms and nervous disposition, she does bear some affinity to earlier Merchant Ivory characters as Maggie Smith’s Aunt Charlotte, who chaperoned the young Helena Bonham Carter through A Room with a View. But Howards End digs deeper into the spinster stereotype than any of the Forster adaptations that had come before. Rather than preoccupied with notions of propriety over Helen’s deportment, as prim Charlotte surely would have been, Meg is simply carried away on wings of love over news of her sister’s engagement. With no thought to class or social standing she enthuses, “What does it matter? Helen is in love. That’s all I need to know.”
She has a finer appreciation for Helen’s affairs because in her personal experience romance has been an all too infrequent presence. Though the full social life Margaret lives, paying visits, attending luncheons, discussions, clubs, meetings, campaigning for women’s rights is far from quiet and retiring, she still feels there’s something fundamental missing. When Ruth exclaims “What interesting lives you all lead,” she immediately disagrees with “No we don’t.” Instead Meg longs for Ruth’s cozy domestic bliss, the seeming serenity she briefly glimpses through the window across the way. It’s the sort of simple comfort and contentment she believes she’s missed out on herself. As their planned expedition to Howards End is called off and the deserted Margaret watches Ruth head off home with her happy, reunited family, she presents a dejected figure, the crowds at the train station bustling past, as if life were symbolically passing her by.
“Do you ever get lonely, Miss Schlegel?” Henry asks her and despite her effusive outward show, from what we’ve seen she is hungry for companionship and would be receptive to the right offer. Her biological clock ticking away, she’s willing to overlook her differences of opinion with the rare man who wants her to share his life. When Henry unexpectedly compliments her over lunch with “It’s a pleasure and a privilege to do whatever I can for Miss Margaret Schlegel,” her blushing embarrassment tells us how deeply flattered she is, having all too rarely been the object of male blandishment. Meg uses her new connections to relocate her family, telling them with pride “Now it is my turn to be useful.” She wants to find an agreeable place for the Schlegel family to settle down and though she doesn’t realize it at the time, allying herself with the Wilcoxes, by first enlisting Henry’s aid to help find a new house, and later by marrying the man, will succeed in a roundabout way, in securing her just the right home she wants (“She always meant to get hold of Howards End and now she’s got it.”).
The brief but special bond that develops between Ruth and Margaret proves the movies’ emotional touchstone. When this conservative wife and liberated intellectual, with their differing points of view are drawn to one another, it’s an attraction of polar opposites. Of all the movie’s paired off couples, they would seem the most incompatible on the surface of things, yet they get on swimmingly together and the film goes out of its way to establish a spiritual connection between them. Perfectly accentuating one another, when they Christmas shop and make last minute plans to embark on their outing, Ruth is draped in white with Margaret swathed in black. Each admires those aspects in the other that are so different from themselves.
Just as Margaret was attracted to Ruth’s life, Ruth admires Margaret, who represents everything she’s never had the courage to be herself. She’s the woman Ruth might have been if she hadn’t become Mrs. Wilcox and subjugated her own life and opinions to that of her husband. She sees something of her younger self in Margaret, as do the filmmakers who have made up the auburn haired Emma Thompson in a way meant to call to mind the young Vanessa Redgrave. By taking her up, Margaret keeps Ruth from brooding, nudging her out of her comfortable shell, raising her political conscience. Ruth admits “We never discuss at Howards End, except perhaps sport,” to which Margaret rejoins “But you should, discussion keeps a house alive.”
Her face illuminated with emotion, Ruth is so tremulously ethereal she seems spiritually radiant as, her health failing, she stares in the face of her own mortality with a quiet inner calm. No longer concerned with trivial, worldly cares, her lingering death has made her alertly sentient, fully alive to the ironies and joys of life. Vanessa Redgrave had been Oscar-nominated for her previous work with Merchant Ivory in The Bostonians, but I don’t remember her being more exquisitely subdued or soulful than she is here. There’s a resonant, poetic timbre to her playing that makes one want to linger over every word, letting them fully sink in and reverberate. We want to contemplate her art as if it were a thing of beauty before it slips away and is lost forever. This is a lovely, moving rendering, a transcendent piece of acting. Redgrave’s sensitively directed scenes with Thompson have much the same quality as those she played with Madeline Potter in The Bostonians (for some reason she keeps pawing Meg the same way she did that little spiritualist) as well as Jane Fonda in her finest film, Julia, and she would receive another well deserved nomination for her performance in Howards End. It’s likely that the strong-minded, outspoken actress who caused uproar with her previous Oscar acceptance speech was attracted to this endeavor by the novelty of being cast so absurdly against type. Redgrave’s attempt to project weakness is belied of course by her physically powerful build, Amazonian height and those enormous hands which made her such an ideal match-up for the radical feminists she’d portrayed in earlier films like The Trojan Women. Larger than life, she was born to embody heroic figures of myth and history such as Antigone, her lines and contours crying out for comedies on the scale of Lysistrata. Redgrave’s archly conservative, soft spoken Ruth believes woman’s place is in the home however, and for her, that concept doesn’t seem nearly so limiting since she loves Howards End to such a degree she doesn’t much like being anywhere else. So rooted to home herself, Ruth is aghast to hear that the Schlegels are to lose the house where they grew up (“That is monstrous! I do pity you from the bottom of my heart. I had no idea this thing was hanging over you. How dreadful. Oh you poor, poor girls.”). She’s more torn up about it than they are themselves, taking a flustered Margaret off guard. City dwellers like the Schlegels, accustomed to constant ebb and flow, are shown not to possess the same strong ties to home, but Ruth’s warning that she’ll never find another house like the one she was born in is a bitter truth Margaret will come to attest. Having consoled Ruth with the assurance that they would easily find other lodgings, once she begins seriously searching, Margaret is driven to her wit’s end trying to find accommodations with the proper character to suit her family.
Revealing to Henry that “It’s heartbreaking having to leave one’s old home,” over time Margaret inherits Ruth’s strong love of the land, as incarnated by Howards End. After marriage, she admits to being tired of living in London, “I can’t be as young as I was so I’m perfectly happy to do without all the new plays and discussion societies… what I miss are trees and mountains, and meadows.” She wants to get back to the earth. Ruth had Margaret put her own name at the top of her Christmas list and, realizing that it’s still there once the presents are wrapped, tells her she’d like to “give you something that’s worth your friendship.” Willing her a house seems such an extravagantly generous gift, out of all proportion, but she knows that Margaret is the only person in the world truly worthy of her ancestral estate, the only one who could appreciate Howards End and love it as much as she has. As Margaret tells Henry, “I have some idea of how much her house meant to Mrs. Wilcox.”
Her family can’t believe Ruth would have left Howards End to Margaret, allowing it to pass out of the family, but we can see why she did it. It’s not just because she knows Margaret is in need of a home, but because she recognizes her as a kindred spirit. Ruth has an intuitive feeling for these things, promptly agreeing with Margaret’s suggestion that Helen and Paul be maneuvered away from one another to avoid any socially awkward unpleasantness with a receptive “Yes, I feel that.” Call it feminine intuition or what have you, she perceives all the finer qualities in the unassuming Meg others have overlooked or taken for granted (“What I chiefly remember about Speyer is the great honor of meeting you, Miss Schlegel.”). She’s not wrong to have wanted her to have a house that’s been in her family for generations. As Ruth realizes, Margaret deserves it far more than any of her own thankless children.
The Wilcoxes care nothing for Howards End, considering it an out of the way inconvenience, too far away from town yet not quite rural enough to be considered the country. Disparaging it so, one wonders why they should want to hold on to the house with such fierce determination. It seems nothing more than a territorial desire to keep Howards End in the family, just as they try to keep the money. As they coolly deliberate over what to do about Ruth’s final request, daughter Evie protests “Mother believed so in ancestors. She would never have left Howards End to an outsider.” She’s not simply referring to the fact that Margaret is not a member of the Wilcox clan but also to the Schlegels’ German heritage, which makes them the ultimate displaced persons, outsiders in an England on the eve of World War I. When threatened by such foreign interests, the Wilcoxes collude and close ranks. The children instantly assume Helen is after the family fortune (“I warn you, it’s useless, Paul hasn’t a penny.”) and are suspicious their new stepmother has married in, scheming to get her hands on Howards End.
If what they were doing weren’t so dastardly, this scene of greedy, grasping relatives haggling over the will would be almost comical. It’s absurd, the way these materialists fight over crumbs despite already having so much more than they need. The Wilcoxes have no love for any of the land they own, they just wish to conquer it, exploit its resources, and then parcel it off for profit. The many properties, baronial estates, ancestral castles Henry buys up in order to turn over, might be conquered colonies, same as those his company lays claim to in other lands, local extensions of his Imperial and West African Rubber Company. Howards End is the one piece of acreage that remains untouched, the one thing Ruth had left that she could completely call her own as voracious men like her husband swallow up the earth, building what they can’t buy in order to maintain a stranglehold on the country. “What nice houses you have all over the place,” the unassuming Margaret casually remarks to this man who begrudges giving her a refurbished old farmhouse.
Lords of industry and masters of commerce, the Wilcoxes are dyed in the wool empire builders, asserting their dominion over those too weak to defend themselves. Xenophobic, rude to servants, class conscious, their fortune amassed by exploiting England’s colonies, they are intended to represent everything wrong with the country. To the movie’s traditionalist mindset, the Wilcoxes are like crass new money, as opposed to the landed gentry Ruth descends from. She carries modesty, graciousness and aristocratic breeding in her very bone structure while her boorish family throws money around for self satisfied show. Chancing across a laid off Leonard begging for work with bowed head and hat in hand, Helen fumes that the man who caused it all is “Celebrating his daughter’s wedding at his castle in Shropshire with a maximum of ostentation and expense.” While the wealthy splurge their self-indulgent whims, the poor scrounge just to make ends meet.
If the movie goes to extremes in disparaging lower class Jacky, Charles and his silly wife Dolly are treated as upper crust caricatures of similar dimension. They make incredibly conventional, superficial villains in relation to the other finely drawn characters. James Wilby, star of Merchant Ivory’s Maurice, appears to be indulging at times in a shameless Prince Charles impersonation, assuming apparently that there’s much in a name. The picture came out the same year the royal couple officially split so the public had been well primed to hiss and boo him. Just as his ruling feudal class have always lorded it over their worker peasants, Charles behaves as though it were his divine right as king to chastise Leonard, Helen’s ‘seducer,’ for his misconduct by thrashing the cur. Though we know those who live by the sword, die by it, to the imperialist Wilcox mind, there’s only one purpose to put the Schlegel’s rusty family heirloom. Using the object of art to assert their social dominance, they force it back into service as a weapon of class warfare. Though it’s initially assumed that Charles will get off scot free for taking the life of an indigent, the broad reforms of changing times extend to the judicial system as well. The ancient regime can no longer kill peasants with impunity. Generally acquitting himself like a spoiled little princeling, Charles is constantly declaring that working stiffs should get the sack, first the chauffeur who calls out sick, then the lot at the train depot which he considers abominably organized, regardless of the consequences for them if they lose their precarious livelihoods. Later his father will thoughtlessly strip Leonard of his sole source of income without even registering what he’s done. Villainous Henry espouses a Darwinist view with “Helen, I grieve for your clerk, I really do. But it is all part of the battle of life.” Like many robber barons around the turn of the century, he smugly ascribes his own success to natural superiority and the failure of the poor to improve their lot to inferior breeding. “Don’t take up a sentimental attitude about the poor,” he cautions, “The poor are poor, one is sorry for them, but there it is,” failing to take into account the extenuating forces that influence success or failure. The Bast’s own financial collapse for example, can be directly attributed to his injudicious advice. Adding insult to injury, it’s not enough that Henry wrecked Leonard’s life he must be shown to have wrecked his wife’s as well, having taken advantage of Jacky when she was young and friendless following her father’s death. Leonard is shown to be his moral superior by marrying the down and out woman whose reputation he’d ruined. As he rhetorically asks “Where would she be today after the Mr. Wilcoxes of this world had finished with her?” Henry represents predatory opportunism and exploitation at its worst, cavalierly grinding the working poor into the dust then damning them for being unable to rise out of it. The Silence of the Lambs having just been released the year before, I shudder to think that Anthony Hopkins’ cold blooded appearance as Henry Wilcox here was a matter of typecasting. His Hannibal Lecture was a cannibal whose dining habits regressed predatory human behavior back to its primeval beginnings, but in his way Henry is just as reprehensible. His championing of a competitive, dog-eat-dog Darwinian society in which only the strong survive, just sounds like a slightly more civilized variation on Hannibal’s solipsism. Their outlooks aren’t too far removed, but while Hannibal is shunned by society and safely locked out of sight, Henry is esteemed and respected as a successful tycoon and pillar of the community. With a perpetual sneer of contempt, Basil Rathbone used to effortlessly coast through parts like this, but Henry has been written as such a ramrod, there’s not much for Anthony Hopkins to work with apart from the externals.
Whenever the character is unable to face up to himself, Hopkins hides his face with his hand. Henry, who has no forgiveness in his heart, holds the world to such rigid standards, he can’t express embarrassment (upon Margaret finding out about his past, for instance) or accept his own weaknesses (such as when he doesn’t know what to do about the criminal charges leveled against Charles) without turning away in abject shame at his personal impotence. But Hopkins is less of an actor here and more of a prop of drama, a thoroughly contemptible representative of capitalism run rampant. We’re never given an inkling as to why this bluff self made man who seems to have pulled himself up by the boot straps behaves as though he were trying to buy the class he wasn’t born into by acquiring estates, titles, and a cultured wife, or so hold it against men like Leonard, who are likewise trying to move up in the world, as though he had some vested interest in keeping them down.
The Mrs. Wilcoxes are themselves considered commodities by the imperialist interests Henry represents. He looks upon them as possessions, bought and paid for same as his other holdings and assets. Which helps explain why the movie opens with a clash of ominous percussion, the introductory credits scrolling over a print of a subjugated harem slave being led off to bondage. Though the image may seem a tad off in this genteel English setting, it establishes a framework for the feminism underpinning Jhabvala’s screenplay, which won her the 1992 Academy Award, at a ceremony dedicated to “Women and the Movies,” a theme that became a joke in light of the notable dearth of good roles for actresses that year. Whereas the first Mrs. Wilcox was demure and old-fashioned, the Mrs. Wilcox who succeeds her is intended to represent the new woman, both in Henry’s life and in the social conscience. An emancipated lady of independent means, Margaret balks at the insulting double standard applied to the sexes, assuming an equality that seems at odds with the social conventions of the time. While Margaret believes discussion keeps a house alive, Ruth cautions that “I sometimes think it would be wiser to leave action and discussion to men.” Whereas Ruth deferred to her husband in everything (“He knew best of course.”), letting him have his own way, Margaret takes Henry aback by so stridently voicing her own opinions. It’s so unusual for Ruth to express herself in similar fashion that when she clears her throat to offer the simple yet profound observation, on the eve of the first World War, “My idea has always been that if we could bring the mothers of the various nations together, then there would be no more war,” the entire table is hushed to deeply drink in her thoughts. The feminist sentiments behind those words are embraced by Margaret’s circle, an assortment of artists, intellectuals and bohemians modeled after the Bloomsbury Society. Yet when Ruth expresses a less enlightened view on suffrage (“You will laugh at my old fashioned ideas.”), the presence of an unbeliever among these self-professed proponents of freethinking, occasions a far more awkward silence.
Margaret is such an opinionated chatterbox that Evie mocks her behind her back “Heaven knows why father wanted me to ask her (to lunch). She talks and talks.” Margaret knows she drives listeners to distraction with her compulsive yammering (“I do rattle on, I’m afraid I shall tire you out in no time.”) but she can’t help getting carried away with avuncular enthusiasm. Both Schlegel sisters are believed to talk too much by the standards of polite society in which women were supposed to be pleasingly decorative and nothing more, seen and not heard. As Helen laments “Oh Meg, shall we ever learn to talk less?” Though his enlightened attitude is the rare exception to the sexist rule, Leonard thinks the more ladies have to say the better. Ever courtly, he attempts a flowery compliment, offering the opinion that their banter can itself be ornamental, “ladies brighten every conversation.”
With their parents dead it’s Margaret’s place as the oldest sibling to act in the capacity of matriarch as head of the household. In her no nonsense grey sweaters and mannish little cravats, Margaret capably manages her family’s accounts, developing skills in areas like math and science traditionally held to be the province of more masculine minds. Escorting Ruth on a buying expedition, she demonstrates “the scientific method to Christmas shopping,” a checklist, earning her friend’s admiration for being so “wonderfully efficient.” She’s equally adept at business acumen and sums, demonstrating to Henry how easily he can use long division to calculate portioning his estate between his heirs.
The evolving character of Mrs. Wilcox, as played by the two different actresses, is meant to reflect the subtly shifting nature of women’s place in society at that time, when suffragettes were campaigning for full participation in the electoral process and agitating for equality. In becoming the second Mrs. Wilcox, this new woman modernizes the outdated idea of deportment for wives who take vows to honor and obey. Her generation can embrace the novel and innovative while still respecting the older traditions, advancing the idea of the emancipated woman into a brave new century, right alongside the other changes being wrought in the Edwardian social order.
Intriguingly, when Margaret assumes her place as Mrs. Wilcox she begins appropriating attributes we associated with Henry’s first wife. Strolling over the castle grounds as Ruth was seen doing during the opening passage, the camera follows behind Margaret rather than focusing on her face. To further deemphasize her individual identity, she’s dressed in a manner similar to Ruth and her hair styled the same, further blurring our memories. Past and present Mrs. Wilcox are visually merged in our minds as one. “Taking my mother’s place! The idea.” Charles scoffs, but the spiritual affinity between the two women has been made plain. When Margaret visits Howards End for the first time, the wind murmurs through the trees as though the spirit of Ruth were with her as she tours the grounds they’d planned on visiting together long ago. A reprise of the tinkling piano accompaniment from the beginning is cued, calling to mind Ruth’s earlier amble. So it’s no surprise the caretaker should mistake the second Mrs. Wilcox for the first (“I took you for Ruth Wilcox.”), to Margaret’s disconcert (“I, like Mrs. Wilcox?”), telling her “You have her way of walking, round the house.”
At the restaurant where they lunch, Henry, the take charge type, naturally assumes a domineering role with Meg. And Margaret, for her part is flattered by his masterfulness, settling comfortably into her new passive role rather than becoming concerned that she’s relinquishing control by placing the reigns in his hands. She has no qualms about letting someone else take on the burden of providing for her family. After a lifetime of playing mother hen, fussing and fretting over the comfort of others and putting their happiness before her own, it’s nice having someone else looking after her interests for a change. She’s willing to be shunted into a woman’s diminished place in exchange for the security Henry offers. But in assuming the first Mrs. Wilcox’s role in the marriage, taking Henry’s name, Margaret sacrifices her own identity, becoming an appendage of her husband. Like many newlywed women, in so doing she appears to lose sight of who she is for a time, her manner becoming uncharacteristically subdued and obsequious. Rather than speaking out freely as she once had, she instead holds her tongue and acquiesces, placing herself in opposition to her own principals. Even when she herself can see that he’s in the wrong with his blind arrogance, she still yields saying “Henry is my future husband and I must be on his side.” Helen believes her sister is abandoning her for the enemy (“How is it possible for our Meg to be a Wilcox?”), those fears being justified when she receives communication from Margaret regretfully informing her she can do nothing to help the Basts. A contemptuous Helen can tell that it’s not her sister’s voice behind the cold, unfeeling words, assuming “He made her write it. This isn’t Margaret. Will you put it in the fire?” Desperate to mediate between sister and husband, to ensure that all her loved ones get along, Margaret is willing to dampen her own vitality and curtail her outspokenness just to maintain a harmonious household. Resolutely bipartisan, she’d say anything to avoid conflict and maintain the peace.
Henry says he could’ve understood Ruth’s request if Miss Schlegel were homeless, but like his wife we’re aware of what he’s not. He’ll come to see the wisdom of her decision in time. Henry will later offer to help Margaret find another house (“Miss Schlegel expects me to act as house agent for her.”) while smoothly sidestepping her halfhearted joke about wishing he could give them Howards End, stonewalling her and making up fibs about its having already been rented. Even after he marries Meg, accepting her into the Wilcox clan and allowing the Schlegels to store furniture and belongings there, he still obstinately refuses to turn the house over to its rightful owner, fully and freely.
But Howards End was meant for Margaret. Even when Henry and Dolly forget the key and must return for it, leaving Meg to roam the grounds alone, the door swings open of its own accord to admit her. Despite all the Wilcox subterfuges and attempts to thwart them, the Schlegels continue moving in by inches (‘the thin edge of the wedge,’ Charles calls it) slowly encroaching upon the property that was always intended to be theirs. “I warn you, the house has not been built that can suit the Schlegel family,” Margaret kids, but they’ll see that their belongings seem to fit perfectly at Howards End. “It’s curious isn’t it that our carpet fits?” Helen asks puzzled, to which her sister concurs, “Yes, the sword looks right, too.”
The caretaker, Miss Avery, is suspected of being a bit touched, so by the Schlegel’s artistic standards that means she has visionary insights denied more rational minds. She is meant to embody the mystical wisdom of the superstitious country peasants Ruth refers to in her story about “a chestnut tree at Howards End that has pig’s teeth stuck into the trunk about four feet from the ground… the country people put them there long ago and they think that if they chew a piece of the bark it will cure the toothache.” She’s a type rarely seen on screen, outside interpretations of Rasputin, the mad monk. Still rooted to the land, Miss Avery’s inner eye remains unrheumy. She’s the only person in the movie who notices Emma Thomson’s astonishing resemblance to the young Vanessa Redgrave and despite assurances to the contrary, to instantly grasp that the Schlegels are meant to reside at Howards End. It’s why she unpacks their belonging as they arrive, bedecking the house, bringing it back to life for the first time since Ruth passed. “How well the carpet fits,” she echoes encouragingly, looking at Margaret without comprehension when she relates that a mistake has been made, reiterating that they’re not going to be living at Howards End with, “This is not our house.”
In her breakthrough, Oscar-winning role, Emma Thompson is billed fourth in the credits, though Howards End turns around her character. Apart from the BBC miniseries Fortunes of War, she hadn’t amassed much of a resume prior to this movie, but with her poised, composed, intelligent interpretation of mild mannered Margaret, Thompson found an ideal intermediary between her pretentiously prattling patron of the arts in Impromptu and the endearingly anxious college alumni of Peter’s Friends. Alongside British comedians Stephen Frye and Hugh Laurie, the actress preformed with an improv troupe during her days at Cambridge and her dryly clipped dialogue, while straight out of Forster, has a similar extemporaneous feel. There’s a casual ease to it as if she were tossing it off as she goes. Thompson takes the starch right out of her lines, making Margaret’s burbling garrulousness seem genuinely organic. The actress would do the same with Shakespeare’s challenging poetry in Much Ado about Nothing the following year. Margaret is such a lively raconteur, with a loquacious way with words as they breathlessly topple off her tongue, it’s a delight just listening to her endlessly prattle on. And because Thompson uses gesture and inflection in her voice to help make points and register emotions, her work still seems refreshingly tidy and expedient, for all the Edwardian wordiness. With large, irregular features, clear, careworn eyes and sensitive brows that communicate sincerity and concern, Thompson is an affable, self-effacing performer and she infuses the character of Margaret with her own distinctive vitality. She may be made up and costumed to call to mind the young Vanessa Redgrave, but she’s bursting with such mirth and self-deprecating wit, she just as clearly jogs memories of an energetic young Julie Andrews. And much as Andrews was required to suppress her natural warmth and cheery good humor as Mary Poppins, Thomson would likewise be miscast as the drab housekeeper in her follow-up film for Merchant Ivory, The Remains of the Day. But thankfully Howards End had already afforded her the opportunity to impress her engaging personality upon the public. The part of Margaret might have been specifically tailored to Thompson’s talents. This role is the real gift given her and she proves more than worthy of it. She is such an enlivening presence that her nervous energy becomes infectious. Though Margaret is too modest to see it herself, we discern her special qualities same as the perceptive actress playing her. We can understand why Ruth would value their friendship so highly as well as why Henry would want her for his wife. Formal and fastidious, Margaret may seem too proper a performance, a glorified series of strained gestural niceties, but it’s about as close to perfection as it’s possible for an actress to get. The sterling character remains unflappably gracious and gallant, even as the Wilcoxes scheme and conspire to swindle her out of her inheritance.
Twittery busybody Margaret suggests the concept of feminism as mainstream Edwardian society saw it, a comical movement for unmarriageable spinsters who wanted to play at equality because they had no strong men in their lives to take command of them. Thompson’s delicately shaded acting calls that offensive concept into question however. Her comfortably lived in performance creates a character who stands as persuasive argument to the contrary, yet manages to accomplish what she does, bridging the gulf between the classes, specifically because everyone so drastically underestimates her. It’s inconceivable that even hardline conservatives could view Margaret’s assumption of equality as a threat to political and social stability. To her the controversial ‘woman question’ is a given and so she can’t help but be insulted by the Wilcoxes’ backward attitudes. Seeing that Margaret is reading a book on theosophy by Madam Blavatsky, Henry remarks “Helen, she reads these things and her mind gets addled. My Margaret reads these things and she keeps her facts straight (about) men and women and all that sort of thing, who is who and what is what,” which is just a polite way of saying she knows her proper place. Henry sees it as his duty to uphold the status quo by asserting the superiority of the male species. He believes women should be obediently placid dolls, like Charles’ aptly named wife Dolly. By making Margaret his wife, Henry can shut her up in a sense, making her over into a more docile, domesticated woman. His desire to keep her down is best expressed when he practically pinions her in that wicker lawn chair, leaving her uncomfortably writhing under his steel grip as she attempts to rise. Rather than intimidating viewers by stressing the more militant aspects of the suffrage movement, as Vanessa Redgrave’s fanatic zealot did in The Bostonians, Thompson wins them over with her gentle humor. She’s catching flies with honey here and it’s a sly performance. As Ruth observes of her successor “You’re so clever and yet so good.” But by converting viewers to her cause with such cunning one is loathe to think she’s carrying the day ‘the woman’s way,’ currying favor on bended knee as she does when she entreats Henry to humor Helen by finding a job for Leonard in his office. Wheedling, with kisses and tender supplication, rather than demanding compensation on principle alone, she loses a measure of her integrity in the process. Forster’s Margaret would have been aghast. So it’s heartening when Thompson reclaims her natural forthrightness at the end, revealing formidable reserves of strength lying coiled within her. Though the Wilcoxes try to douse Margaret’s fiery spirit, it’s there all the same, waiting to flare back up, proving she can only be pushed so far before her suppressed nature reasserts itself. While Henry tells Margaret that she hasn’t been herself all day, the rich irony is that she’s behaving more like herself now than she has since the day they married. Laying into him, having her say, she gives him a piece of her mind over the issue of expectant mother Helen spending the night at Howards End. The hard hitting question Margaret poses to Henry (“Tonight, she asks to sleep in your empty house. May she? Will you give my sister leave?”) is really a rewording of her earlier request about securing Leonard a situation, which prompted their initial marital crisis. Only this time Margaret approaches her husband on equal terms, the future of their marriage hanging in the balance, resting on her inflexible spouse’s response. She forces the issue in order to test Henry, to determine if he’s willing to accord her, accord women the same respect she gave him when excusing his own indiscretions, or if he’s going to apply the sexual double standard that allocates one law to men and another to women (“Will you forgive her as you yourself have been forgiven?”). To err is human, to forgive divine. Though Margaret pardoned Henry’s infidelity, he lacks the same capacity for forgiveness that would allow him to excuse a woman’s passing moment of weakness (“I will do what I can for your sister but I cannot treat her as though nothing had happened.”). Steeling her resolve and putting up a spirited defense, Margaret reproves her obstinate spouse, who hypocritically holds to his untenable stance in their heated debate (“You have had a mistress, I forgave you, my sister has a lover you drive her from the house! Why can you not be honest with yourself for once in your life and say ‘what Helen has done, I have done?’ ”). Concealing his sexism behind self righteous sanctimoniousness, Henry refuses to permit the moral transgressor to trespass (“I would be false to my position in society if I did.”). He truly believes her condition will depreciate the property, since Helen’s defiant decision to have her baby stands in opposition to the social mores of the time. Believing such fallen women should be singled out with a scarlet letter and shunned, he feels justified on moral grounds in turning her out of doors for being in the family way, same as he believed he was right in dispossessing Margaret of the house he intends to leave to his son.
The issue that emerges is one of women’s rights, including their right to the inheritance of English property, which has historically been passed down through the male line by birthright, disenfranchising females. Because women are given away, marrying outside the family circle and taking the husband’s name, essentially becoming chattel of his household, landowners have historically left property and title to their sons as a means of keeping assets in the family, which is why there was such stress placed in royal houses on producing male heirs. As we learned from the version of Henry V Thompson had appeared in a few years earlier, alongside future husband Kenneth Branagh, no portion of land under Salic Law could be inherited by a woman. Rather, the whole of the estate went to the male beneficiary. The same holds true for Howards End, with Henry telling Margaret that it will one day go to Charles as the oldest son, even though he doesn’t want to slight the other children.
Property has traditionally been equated with power, possession of territory instigating wars since time immemorial, and the emphasis Howards End places on ownership of land and a home to call one’s own stretches back to Merchant Ivory’s very first film The Householder, which was set in the same India where Ruth’s brother is said to have died, passing Howards End on to her. The wandering company of Merchant Ivory had spent thirty years displaced themselves, roaming the world making movies. So to them the idea of a permanent home was intensely appealing. The Householder’s opening quote states its importance –
In the laws of Manu it is given that —
The student, the householder, the hermit, and the ascetic, these constitute four separate orders, which all spring from the order of the householders,
And in accordance with the precepts of the Veda and of the Smritr, the householder is declared superior to all of them; for he supports the other three.
— The Householder (1963)
Without the comfort and security of a roof over their heads, it would be impossible for individuals to aspire to finer pursuits. Instead they would be spending all their spare time just struggling to get by like Leonard. Everyone needs a place to put down roots in order to be nourished and to blossom, a refuge from the harsh world, making the notion of home a psychological and emotional necessity. Being part of the same place and time can connect people for life, giving them the reassurance of feeling attached, of belonging somewhere. Without a place to call home transients would wander untethered, drifting without purpose or direction as Helen does when she exiles herself from England. As an outcast unwed mother, she had been left indefinitely touring Europe, just another transitory wayfarer.
When his wife oversteps his authority and gives Helen permission to stay at Howards End, Henry sends emissary Charles to exert his claim by evicting them and taking possession. It seems a slight variation on the old Victorian cliché of ordering the fallen woman out into the driving snow, and in doing so Henry’s not just disregarding his current wife’s wishes but his first wife’s as well. In essence, he’s throwing the women out of a house that already belongs to them. By behaving in such an inhospitable manner, Henry has become the very sort of disagreeable landlord both Mrs. Wilcoxes once agreed were detestable. Mulling over Helen’s situation, he worries “If she wants to sleep there one night, she’ll want to sleep there two and we shall never get her out of the house,” but Margaret, who would like to keep her family close charges “Would that matter so much?” Despite assurances that “we will only trouble Howards End for this one night,” Henry’s worst fears are realized when Helen, like the proverbial relative who outstays their welcome, never does leave. With her sister already squatting at Howards End and the house decorated with the Schlegel’s things, possession proves nine-tenths of the law.
Though this ancestral estate was intended to go to Charles, it’s Margaret, the rightful owner, who will wind up inheriting it and the turn of events seems only fitting and proper since the house, home, is associated with the domestic and female spheres. With a suitable sense of irony (“It does seem curious, Mrs. Wilcox wanted Margaret to have Howards End and now she gets it after all.”), the house is left to Henry’s wife absolutely and upon her death she intends to leave it to her nephew. The standing rules of inheritance under English law have been thoroughly subverted in Howards End. The house is not only passed down through the female line but will eventually be inherited by an illegitimate heir, bastard sons, like women themselves, having traditionally been excluded from legal claims to legacies and lines of succession. Coming full circle, circumstances seem to correct themselves as Margaret reclaims the inheritance she was cheated of. Without ever realizing it’s her due, or how sorely she’d been slighted by the Wilcoxes, Margaret rights the great wrong done her, in the process changing the world around her for the better. Having threatened to break things off unless her demands were met, she proves an implacable force to be reckoned with. In fighting for women’s rights and bridging the gulf between the classes, she becomes a crusader for social change. Insuring her sister’s permanent residency at Howards End, Margaret is coercing the conservative society Henry represents, to accept her and the child on equal terms rather than ostracizing them as an affront to decency. To Margaret, forcing the arrogant Wilcoxes’ hand and seeing them concede their point gives her supreme satisfaction. She couldn’t ask for anything more. In Forster, the ancestral manor of Howards End, with its close ties to feudal England’s agricultural past, was intended to represent the country herself, which is why such dramatic importance is placed on its inheritance. As Henry states, “The question to my mind is connected to something greater, the rights of property itself. The house is mine and one day will be yours Charles.” Though half the parties are unconscious that they’re engaged in it, the entire film is a war over property rights with Howards End being batted back and forth like a tennis ball in a game worthy of Wimbledon. By deciding into whose hands this legacy should ultimately pass, Forster settled the question of who would inherit the earth. Even in the early years of the century, the author accurately foresaw the rise of the lower middle and working class as the driving force of the future. Feudal lords who had historically owned the land gradually became obsolete in an ever more industrialized, urban and democratic England. By film’s finale, ancestry, title and pedigree don’t seem to matter one wit. The high and mighty having fallen, once proud Charles even suggests that he and Dolly change their names from Wilcox. Howards End finds an ideal ending that fits almost as well as the Schlegel’s carpet.
By the time Merchant Ivory made this movie, they were already looked on as something like arbiters of screen elegance, but they simply outdid themselves with the period recreations here. The refurbished spaces and luxury goods amassed by Luciana Arrighi and Ian Whittaker, who were awarded coffee table Oscars, are a designer’s dream, the sumptuousness even surpassing the filmmakers’ usual high standards. Howards End is a quality Merchant Ivory costume drama and as such, a compendium of the brightest bits of Old English. With a place for everything and everything in its place, it evokes a genteel world of porcelain China, tea sets and cosies, lattice work trellises draped with climbing ivy, Chantilly lace curtains, silver services. One could practically sink into the plushness of the cluttered, overstuffed interiors and lose themselves in the yards of fashionable finery by costumiers Jenny Beavan and John Bright. Independently financed with venture capital raised through Japanese interests and produced on the cheap, it’s a splendid evocation of Edwardian England, fairly dripping with taste and meticulous period detail.
Yet the tumbledown Howards End proves the real homespun star of the show. It’s here where events come to a head. Ruth paints her house in such warm, amber tones she creates a vividly romantic image in viewers’ minds and a wistful longing in them as strong as her own. We agree with Margaret that “It sounds such a glorious place, so redolent.” So the cottage that causes all the commotion must be seen to be something truly special, worth investing all the time and energy characters expend squabbling over it. This humble estate, set in austere harmony with its environment, is like the unadorned lilies of the field. Howards End is meant to represent the spiritual beauty of simplicity as opposed to the decadence of the other homes the Wilcoxes own. The name is even clarified in its initial reference. When Aunt Juley mistakenly blurts out “Obviously somebody must go down to this Howards House and make inquiries,” Margaret corrects her, “Howards End.” (one must be very careful about the way that name is used in sentences if they don’t want to invite derisive laughter). Historically it could be regarded as something of a feudal manor, though Ruth’s family, landed gentry, and the servants lived on terms approaching equality. It’s this earlier state of egalitarianism that Margaret wants to restore to Howards End by passing it on to Helen and Leonard’s offspring.
The movie opens at twilight with Ruth roaming over the picturesque grounds of her beloved estate, the lingering camera linking her with the landscape of Howards End as surely as Margaret later will be. They share a similar feel for the beauty of nature. When she visits Ruth in the hospital, for instance, Margaret brings a bouquet of flowers, some of which Ruth places in her hair while being held to their date to visit Howards End as soon as she’s well enough. After her death, the movie takes a moment to again amble over the grounds she loved and didn’t get to see that final time, the flowers drooping in sadness as tears rain down on the brook babbling comforting thoughts. Ruth’s deep love for the land infuses every frame. Even Howards End’s title spirals like loose leaf vegetation over the credits.
Rather than gleaning artistic appreciation from the learned meaning of books, paintings and music, all Ruth’s instinctive aesthetic responses are directly tied to the terra firma. While to the manor born, it’s an earthy romanticism which Ruth still shares with that farm woman caretaker. Howards End is like a French pastoral at times, a vignette by Jean Renoir or Jacques Feyder. It places nearly as strong a mystical peasant importance on the land as early Soviet films, which glorified serfdom as a bucolic life spent nurturing nature by sowing, plowing, harvesting and tilling the soil. While Ruth and Margaret are bonded by the shared experience of meandering over the grounds, as she crosses the furrowed fields of Howards End at the finale, having morphed into a fertile, earth mother figure, Helen will become another link in this chain of spiritual heirs connected by their proximity to the landscape.
Leonard will be associated with it as well when he wanders through that clearing of bluebells during his pilgrim’s progress. Learning that he is descended from yeoman farmers, Margaret observes of his all night odyssey, “It was ancestral voices calling you.” It’s ancestral voices calling all of them. These are the sort of ‘ancestors’ Ruth really cares about, ones that have nothing to do with family crests or aristocratic titles and everything to do with communing with nature. With rapidly expanding industrialization having brought an end to the feudal farming system that had characterized agriculture-based English life for centuries, country people like Leonard’s own were forced off the land. Migrating to the city failed to improve their lot so his flight of fancy in walking straight out of London (“just wanted to walk, to get out.”) seems understandable; he’s a man who feels compelled to get back to nature, to get somewhere, even if he’s not precisely sure where he’s going. The freedom of the outdoors is used as counterpoint to his cramped city apartment.
Imagining himself striding through the same fields, he becomes the hero of the book he’s reading, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel in the chapter “Nature Speaks,” (“Ankle deep he waded through the bluebells. His spirit exalted as he breathed in the sun drenched air.”). He wanders through the fields at dusk same as we had seen Mrs. Wilcox doing at the beginning, indicating that the pull of the land is just as strong in him as her and why his child is ultimately worthy of inheriting the great house. The director, cinematographer and musician transform the landscape during these pastoral interludes into an enchanted realm, showing us the preternatural beauty characters perceive in their mind, making us understand why they should feel so drawn to the countryside, leafy lanes and commons. The movie is never more gorgeous to look at than during the canoe ride Helen and Leonard take, the beauty overcoming them as they kiss for the first time and let nature take its course. In the movie’s Romanticist view, it’s only those at one with nature, enrapt by her timeless wonders, who are worthy of inheriting the earth.
Margaret describes Leonard as poor but sensitive and intelligent, which are apparently qualities that ennoble him. Dismissed as a representative example of his class by Henry, she objects “But he is not a type… I think he is quite an unusual young man and he has something in him, I don’t know what it is except, he wants something better than what he’s got… He has a sort of romantic ambition.” It’s Leonard’s romanticism that endears him to the clever, discerning Schlegel sisters, designating him as someone worthy of their attempts to stave off the wolf at the door; they have great expectations for him. Leonard seems a man apart, in the same way their own appreciation for art earmarks them as having been blessed by the three graces. But the sheltered Schlegels live in just as fanciful a world of fiction as Leonard, which is why they don’t anticipate any possible consequences of their meddling in his affairs. As Henry asks Margaret, “You with your fine pursuits and your books, what can you guess of any man’s life?” Meeting Leonard Bast proves a sociological eye opener for these sheltered bourgeoisie. Rather than romantic, the pragmatic Wilcoxes would regard Leonard’s sensitivity as a handicap since it’s this very quality that makes it so hard for him to survive the competitive rat race he isn’t cut out for. His bedimmed artistic soul dies a little each day he has to wrest a crude living from the world. As whimsical as Helen, Leonard is a born dreamer (Margaret says he must be a born explorer) who wants to see his life in terms of a hero’s journey. His daydreams are the only things that alleviate his dull, creatively unstimulating job as an insurance clerk. Books transport him.
When he reads, he’s no longer in his office, chained to his desk, but in a deep forest glen dappled with sunlight. Yet when inspired to partake in an adventure similar to the one he’s reading about, Leonard finds reality doesn’t compare to the fanciful description. Imagining a gloriously breathtaking dawn, for instance, he’s acutely disappointed to instead find it drab, grey and freezing, any possible appreciation of it undercut by his more immediate needs for nourishment and shelter. Leonard’s romantic spirit will go on to be ruthlessly crushed by the myriad other economic realities over which he can exert no control. Trying to comfort Helen, he reassures her that “You’re the only person who ever really has helped me… by being the sort of person you are. I didn’t think people like you existed except in books. But books aren’t real.” To which she contradicts, “Oh no, they’re more real than anything! When people fail you, there’s still music and meaning.” But caught in the vise of a capitalist system, this dreamer offers a shockingly cynical reply, “That’s for rich people. To make them feel good after their dinner.” He’s become like that philistine guest at Margaret’s luncheon who questioned what the Germans gained by taking art so seriously. Begrudgingly dependent on the real world for his livelihood, Leonard can no longer afford to subsist in a quixotic reverie, despite his craving to. The epic walk he took in his youth is repeated at the end of the movie as Leonard walks clear out of London again, to Howards End this time, his personal Calvary, dispirited, bowed down by poverty, his slumped posture making it seem as though he were carrying the world on his shoulders.
He’s the movie’s martyr, crucified for society’s sins against his class. He’d been so taken in by the fiction that when he dies, penniless and disillusioned (“It’s all got spoiled for you hasn’t it?”), it’s crushed beneath a bookshelf in slow motion so the symbolism can’t be lost on us. The amassed, artistic weight of centuries, literature, philosophy, poetry, painting, comes crashing down on him, burying him beneath a mountain of culture. Trodden on his whole life, to be finished off by the very books he’d cherished seems a fittingly poetic end for Leonard. While a wee small part of me feels this ritualistic punishment was meant to serve as some sort of comeuppance for his attempt to step out of his class, the ignominy purposely undercuts the storybook ending he still half expected. His death turns out to be just as disappointingly nondescript as that long ago dawn. The coroner rules it heart disease but he might just as well have folded from a broken heart.
Speaking of Paul and Helen early on, Margaret rationalized “They belong to types that can fall in love but can’t live together. I’m afraid that in nine cases out of ten, nature pulls one way and human nature the other.” She might just as well be describing her own future betrothal to the staid, conservative Henry Wilcox, but in truth, all the couples in the film belong to equally incompatible types. These include Paul and Helen, Helen and Leonard, Leonard and Jacky, Margaret and Ruth as well as Margaret and Henry. Even the aged caretaker of Howards End, Miss Avery, harbors a back story that fits the pattern. “They say that Mrs. Wilcox had a brother, or was it an uncle, who popped the question. Well, she turned him down. Can you imagine if she hadn’t? She might have been Charley’s aunt.” Upon learning of Helen’s similar, cross-class dalliance with Paul, Aunt Juley worries whether they will be compatible “What do we know about these Wilcoxes? Are they our sort? Are they likely people?” Trying to unite her two very different families, Margaret wants the most important people in her life to get along, but Helen and Henry prove the movie’s most incompatible pairing.
It would seem Henry’s imperious, uncompromising sexism, conservatism and materialism would make it impossible for his type and the Schlegel type, artistic, temperamental, progressive, liberal to live together. They don’t even speak the same language. Taking Meg’s idle comment seriously, for instance, when Henry suggests that they lure Helen to Howards End to have her analyzed by a psychiatrist, his wife is aghast at his unscrupulousness, declaring “It’s madness when I say it, not when you say it.” Yet Margaret miraculously manages to negotiate a compromise even with Henry. By film’s end the dynamics in their relationship have shifted in such a way that these incompatible types have managed to come to a wary understanding, finding an equitable balance that allows them to peacefully co-exist.
While this conservatively directed drama, one of the first releases of the newly formed Sony Pictures Classics, hardly seems the sort of picture one would rank among a moviemaking revolution, Howards End was in the vanguard of the indie wave just beginning to inundate the old Hollywood system. The nearly contemporaneous release of such films as The Crying Game; Reservoir Dogs; Like Water for Chocolate; The Player; Enchanted April; El Mariachi; A Midnight Clear; Bad Lieutenant; Strictly Ballroom; Orlando; One False Move; Light Sleeper; Gas, Food, Lodging; Slacker; My Own Private Idaho; Passion Fish, among others, would forever rattle Tinseltown’s perception of out-of-the-mainstream moviemaking and earn 1992 an appellation as the ‘Year of Independents.’ The creative process that results in the crafting of well-wrought cinema such as this, in the midst of all the crass wheeling and dealing necessary to accumulate enough funds to produce a marketable picture, forges an unholy union between art and commerce. So in essence, the tug of war Margaret must mitigate between her two houses mirrors the endless string of compromises that a well-polished indie like Howards End must make during the process of being brought to the screen. “It is a strange marriage we have,” Merchant famously said. “I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew and Jim is a Protestant American.” As such Howards End might just as easily have extended its theme of incompatibility to the moviemakers themselves. The very name Merchant Ivory seems to suggest a merger of the mercantile and semi-precious art, with director Ivory striving to realize his artistic vision at any price, while pragmatic producer Merchant attempted to pinch pennies at every corner to bring the movie in under-budget and ahead of schedule. Merchant and Ivory’s names go together like a horse and carriage, which is why their production company employed the contraction. Listening to director and producer needling, arguing and contradicting each other in vintage interviews, makes them sound like an old married couple.
Howards End was released to celebrate their 30th anniversary, and by this point the two men had, like their incompatible characters onscreen, managed to find a harmonious balance between the extremes of art and commerce, their perfectly paired talents setting each other off. This movie proved the crowning achievement in Merchant Ivory’s signature series of period pieces and they never again quite managed to equal its exquisite perfection. On the surface, it has the same genial, summertime tones of A Room with a View but they had matured as filmmakers so it’s a deeper, more contemplative film than that lilting, earlier comedy, sounding emotions that expand into melancholic tragedy as the movie progresses. It’s impossible to think of Howards End without thinking in terms of Jhabvala’s faithful adaptation, which is among the best of its kind, comprehensive yet streamlined. She’s teased just about all the ironies and complexity from the novel while paring down the dense floweriness of the Edwardian dialogues. The preliminary wipe expands the screen as if it were opening up like a book, making clear the movie’s intention to retain E.M. Forster’s literary flavor. Ironically Howards End seems a movie inclined to inspire appreciation for the pleasures of reading, pointing people back to its source. It’s only the prospect of retrieving her treasured books that lures Helen out of hiding, for example. The rules of classical movie grammar are always here, even when we don’t notice them, shaping and organizing everything we see like a beautiful floral arrangement. Comprised of comforting symmetrical compositions, non-confrontational imagery and engaging conversation that can be terribly interesting at times, Howards End is in conspicuously good taste. Merchant Ivory wanted to place themselves in the same grand artistic tradition as the other immortal men of letters they frequently cited onscreen, and with the distinguished, auspicious Howards End, they succeeded. Much of the movie could function as a mood piece and some passages are as close to moving poetry as cinema gets. The picture Ivory paints with his palette of pastoral pastels, consciously evokes the impressionist masterpieces of Monet, making this movie deserving of its own place in the Western canon right alongside the fine art that inspired it.
Though Helen has no rejoinder for Leonard’s bitter accusation that art is not enough to sustain one in the face of financial need, Howards End itself serves as rebuttal, proving there to be something to her assertion that when the world lets one down art can buoy the spirit back up, reminding us of the finest humanity has to offer. It’s a valid sentiment that gets at something in the appeal of moviegoing itself. A technological byproduct of the industrial revolution, cinema was thought of as a universal art because visual language, like music, crosses all cultural borders, and a truly democratic one, because of its ability to bring the classes together. Movies not only combine the various branches of filmmaking (direction, acting, screenwriting, cinematography, editing, etc.) but fuse all the other arts (theater, photography, painting, music, writing, dance, etc.) into one. The only artform unique to the 20th century is, appropriately enough, an inherently unifying force. Movies and the other popular arts do possess the power to unite, which Howards End demonstrates by showing it to be music that first draws Helen and Leonard together at the concert hall. Art can also prove a refuge when life gets one down, as Helen avers. Movies, in particular, can change the mood of the viewer, lift their spirits (or depress them), inspire, illuminate, titillate, put a smile back on their face, make one feel as though things weren’t so bleak and dreary as they had seemed before walking into the theater. Art can be an abiding rock of Gibraltar, steadying one in life’s rough waters. In our own transient modern world, movies can be our constant, an enduring source of pleasure that just need to be rewound to be enjoyed all over again. In essence, they can provide the same sense of reassuring stability that Ruth found in Howards End. And for movie lovers who respond to this film that way, their passion for it will prove unequivocal. While its themes involve transience and impermanence, Howards End has grown into a timeless masterpiece that continues to age very gracefully.