Howards End: All Is Grace

On Film / Essays — Oct 27, 2009

Who speaks of Howards End these days? Who expounds on the virtues of this magnificent drama, whose traditional style seems almost as distant as its Edwardian setting? Seen today, years past its 1992 release, it strikes one as not only the ultimate accomplishment of the Merchant Ivory team but also the high-water mark of a certain kind of filmmaking, a landmark example of movies of passion, taste, and sensitivity that honestly touch every emotion. Below its exquisitely modulated surface, this film may set off lasting and heartfelt reverberations in the viewer; every time you see it, it moves you in different ways.

Certainly, Howards End was appreciated in its day. Made for only eight million dollars, it received nine Oscar nominations, including for best picture, director, cinematography, and supporting and lead actress, for Vanessa Redgrave and Emma Thompson. The latter won, along with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s script and Luciana Arrighi and Ian Whittaker’s art direction and set decoration. But the film seems to have been half-forgotten precisely because of those old-fashioned qualities once heralded as its strengths. Beyond its already distant source material—E. M. Forster’s 1910 novel of families in love and conflict—it offers filmmaking techniques that owe nothing to the flash and dash of contemporary movies. Yet alongside an elegantly unfolding script and impeccable acting across the board from people like Anthony Hopkins, as well as Redgrave and most especially Thompson, extravagant directorial flourishes would have just gotten in the way.

After creating a number of films in Edwardian dress, producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory knew how to be more than merely faithful to the look of those times—they knew how to make that world seem genuinely inhabited. From production designer Arrighi, who was after “how people lived, not a set,” to costume designer Jenny Beavan, who wanted “real clothes made in an authentic way,” the level of realism in Howards End is all the more convincing for its having been so casually accomplished.

Experience is essential in sustaining such restraint, and Merchant, Ivory, and Prawer Jhabvala had been collaborating for thirty years when they undertook this project. Nothing else they did, not even the splendidly comic A Room with a View, which came before, or the somber The Remains of the Day, released a year later, would match this achievement. What sets Howards End apart, what raises this work to a new level of emotional artistry, are its characters’ complex inner lives. Having a novelist as psychologically acute as Forster to work from certainly gave a leg up to all concerned. In addition to his facility with character and relationships, Forster was dealing with a powerful theme in Howards End, the pangs of a society in terrible flux. A serpent was loose in the genteel garden that was Edwardian England: the modern world, fated to bite everyone and change everything. The only question was, how great the change?

Like the novel it follows so closely, the film begins not head-on but from an angle, with a peripheral but telling relationship. Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham Carter) is visiting the Wilcoxes, a family that she and her sister, Margaret (Thompson), met the previous spring at Howards End, the Wilcoxes’ romantic old pile of an English country home. Helen and one of the Wilcox sons become briefly infatuated with each other, which leads to the comic intervention of the Schlegel girls’ busybody Aunt Juley (Prunella Scales). The young people are soon separated, but though everyone assumes all ties have been severed, the two families are fated to interconnect more than anyone suspects.

Certainly, the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes seem worlds apart. The three Schlegel siblings (besides Helen and Margaret, there’s their rather ineffectual younger brother, Tibby) are decorous, cultured people with a lively interest in London’s intellectual scene. The Wilcoxes, by contrast, are typified by patriarch Henry (Hopkins), the embodiment of triumphant capitalism; the wealthy head of the Imperial and West African Rubber Company, Henry is abrupt, distant, and often unfeeling. But when the Wilcoxes come to London for a stay and take a flat across the street from the Schlegels, Henry’s wife, Ruth (Redgrave), and Margaret renew their acquaintance. Quite different from her children and her in-laws, who tend to be venal and small-minded, Ruth is passionate: she’s in love with English tradition in general and with the property at Howards End—which belongs to her, not her husband—in particular. Though she would not seem to have much in common with the chatty, terribly up-to-date Margaret—she doesn’t even believe in giving women the vote—the two find an unspoken emotional kinship growing between them.

Meanwhile, the impulsive and high-strung Helen mistakenly takes the wrong umbrella (a habit of hers) as she leaves a music lecture and thus inadvertently meets one Leonard Bast (Samuel West, the real-life son of actress Scales). The beautifully constructed scene where he takes off after her, umbrellaless in a downpour, showcases nearly without words their contrasting personalities: she impulsive and heedless, he both dogged and aggrieved. A low-paid clerk at an insurance company, Bast is stuck in an economically precarious situation, which makes him touchy and easily offended. Possessed of an awfully earnest poetic soul, he is dazzled by the Schlegels’ easy, spirited ways and by the cultured, idealistic world they so effortlessly inhabit. Though the Schlegels, the Wilcoxes, and Bast obviously stand in for different social classes, it is the grace of Howards End to make us care desperately about them simply as people.

Because it’s confident of its story and its powers, Howards End takes the time to establish itself, and allows its varied characters the space to demonstrate their subtleties and complexities. Far from being presented to us fully formed, Margaret and Helen and Leonard and Henry gradually develop and change, revealing who they are not only to the audience but often simultaneously to themselves and each other as well. None of this would be possible, of course, without acting of the most delicate sort, and Howards End so excels in that department, so matches performer to part, it’s fair to say that these roles can be considered career high points for all concerned.

With her abundant Pre-Raphaelite hair, Bonham Carter is perfectly cast as a woman who, in the actress’s words, “is all action and impulse and passion.” At the opposite end of the emotional scale is Anthony Hopkins’s vivid, thoughtful work as a paragon of male energy and achievement, a man who is more indifferent to good than he is actually bad; Hopkins’s prior role was his Oscar-winning turn as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs—Merchant went through that film’s sound editor to get the actor the script—but this performance is perhaps even meatier. And though she doesn’t have a lot of screen time, Redgrave (who agreed to the role when Merchant impulsively doubled her salary) makes a singular impression as Ruth Wilcox, a wan and vulnerable wraith from a dying world. The film’s opening, with Ruth wandering around the moody twilight of the Howards End garden and looking inside the house at a bright and lively dinner party, is a succinct and expressive way to begin a drama that emphasizes both the need for and the difficulty of emotional connection across barriers.

If it can be said that one performance is the heart of Howards End, it would have to be Thompson’s. Though she has since gone on to become an international movie star (and even won another Oscar, this time for her screenplay of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility), when Howards End came out, she was best known in this country as actor-director Kenneth Branagh’s wife. This singular role changed Thompson’s reputation overnight—because though you don’t immediately suspect it, Margaret Schlegel is the force that powers Howards End, the only character possessed of the moral strength to cope with a society in extremis. With her bright smile and chatterbox tendencies, and given to bustling into restaurants and saying things like “I want to eat heaps,” she seems at first glance little more than a cheery, blithe spirit. But the triumph of Thompson’s performance is the way she projects emotional intelligence and gradually allows us to see past that surface to how wise and substantial Margaret is.

An actress who can break your heart just by widening her eyes, Thompson entirely takes over this part and, as Forster’s surrogate in the story, manages the extremely difficult feat of making decency and caring heroic and dramatically captivating. The triumph of these virtues, like the triumph of Howards End, happens gradually, but to see this exceptional film is to know that the wait has definitely been worth it.