Helena Bonham Carter
2 Hrs., 20 Mins.
Howards End September 28, 2020
owards End (1992) is one of the myriad movies directed by James Ivory, produced by Ismail Merchant, and written by Ruth Pawer Jhabval. Characteristic for the trio, which Merchant once lovingly referred to as a three-headed monster, the film is a beautifully photographed, articulately acted period piece — an elegant, intermittently impassioned drama easy to get lost in. It’s widely
considered one of their best collaborations; I’m inclined to agree. Based on the 1910 E.M. Foster novel, Howards End is something of a multi-headed monster itself. This ambitious, nearly two-and-a-half-hour-long drama additionally functions as a romance, a cultural critique, a comedy of manners, and an
The movie is set in Edwardian-era England and mostly follows two families: the prosperous, conservative Wilcoxes, and the less-affluent-but-comfortable, comparatively liberal Schlegals. They first make an acquaintance when, at the beginning of the movie, the youngest Schlegal, Helen (Helena Bonham Carter), impulsively gets engaged to and then breaks up with the Wilcoxes doted-on son Paul (Joseph Bennett). Once that fizzles, both families want to put the whole thing behind them. But then, later on, Helen’s older sister Margaret (Emma Thompson) winds up marrying Wilcox patriarch Henry (Anthony Hopkins) after befriending his sickly and idealistic wife Ruth (an exceptionally humane Vanessa Redgrave) at the end of her life. The film and book are named after the Wilcoxes’ country estate, of which Ruth speaks so fondly that there was a time in the movie, having not read the novel myself, that I questioned whether it still existed, or if the rather dreamy Ruth was lost in the reverie of days past and mistook her long-gone golden years as the present.
Howards End hosts a series of communication breakdowns. It’s also a large-scale criticism of the wealthy and the normalization of the ever-widening gap between the haves and the have nots. So much of the feature is spent speculating over whether Margaret and Henry will stay together. There’s no denying that their marriage is sensible. Margaret, known to many as something of a loquacious old maid, is certainly ready for marriage. And, given her respectable social standing and close (if brief) friendship with the late Ruth, she makes for a suitable wife to Henry, even if his prissy children disagree. (At one time, the Wilcoxes and the Schlegals were neighbors, too.) But ideologically and behaviorally, they’re entirely incompatible. Margaret is left-leaning — essentially a socialist — and, to use a tired cliché, tells it like it is. Successful businessman Henry is, in contrast, mostly agreeable, even soft-spoken. But if you scratch too hard at one of his firmly held views — that “the poor are poor — one is sorry for them, but there it is,” for instance — he can be aggressive in defending his stance. He is unwaveringly conservative.
For much of the movie, strong-willed Helen tries to get Henry to give a job to a lower-class young man named Leonard Bast (Samuel Best). Bast quit his current one mid-movie based on some of Henry’s advice. That advice — to leave his business because the company was probably going to go under soon enough — proved to be a patently unfounded flash judgment. But Henry will not. He has the classically right-leaning stance that the poor, for whom he has so much disdain, can simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they try hard enough. We also find out that, years ago, he had an affair with Leonard’s wife, Jacky (Nicola Duffett), when she was a 16-year-old who’d only recently lost her parents. Howards End aptly chafes at how Henry can run away from his problems — all on account of his financial standing and societal power — while he himself believes that poorer people facing ruin should have to fend for themselves and suffer the consequences.
Helen and Margaret, both lovable, start the film so harmonious but become increasingly unalike in their worldviews. As the film progresses, their
approaches to ideological strife break apart — something we wouldn't have predicted at the beginning of the movie. Helen, for instance, will think it ridiculous and noisily point out that the Wilcoxes can host a one-night party whose budget could very well fund the needs of the progressively destitute Basts for a handful of days. Margaret, meanwhile, is over-concerned with peace-keeping, compassionate but also willing to take a step back if cries of inequality generate too much upper-crust discomfort. She would rather absorb Henry’s insensitivities than push back against them to possibly hurt the marriage. Despite a couple of transgressions, Helen is for the most part the moral center of the film — the entity that underlines the frustrations Foster was ostensibly trying to get at in his writing.
The various hypocrisies at play in Howards End are intelligently homed in on by the so-called Merchant-Ivory three-headed beast. The film is as gorgeous to look at as their other productions; here, though, you can really feel some of the ugliness that partially made possible the pretty, monied surfaces that help make that gorgeousness possible in the first place. This is a stylish soap opera. It's also an enduring and smart reflection of class and gender disparities, the privileges and disadvantages that come with each, and the prices people pay when they either rise in the ranks or stumble downward. A