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Truly Great Movies: Howards End

January 28, 2010

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”
– E.M. Forster, Howards End, Ch. 22

“Only Connect” – compelling words that perhaps mean something different to each person who reads them.

E.M. Forster’s  classic novella Howards End has dual themes at its heart.  On one hand, it is a tale of how social class divisions operate on both tangible and intangible levels, depending on who is doing the dividing.  On the other, it is a tale of what constitutes a “home” – is it merely a structure to be passed down through the generations, or is it an ideal, often possessed, but never really appreciated?

The movie's title character

Merchant Ivory productions reached the peak of their influence and grandeuer with the epic 1992 adaptation of the novella.  Directed by James Ivory, produced by Ismail Merchant, and with a luxe and full screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Howards End is one of the few literary adaptations that manages to faithfully capture its source material’s original themes without sacrificing its charms.

At the center of the tale is the country home of Howards End.  It is not a grand mansion, by any means.  It is faded but cozy, the childhood home of the first Mrs. Wilcox, played with honest forthrightness by Vanessa Redgrave.  Howards End is her shrine, her true best friend in a world she does not quite know what to do with.  Ruth Wilcox is very ill as the movie opens, and to compound her situation, her stiff-lipped upperclass family (which includes two wayward sons, a daughter and an obnoxious, nasal daughter-in-law) look down at her love for Howards End.  To Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins), Ruth’s bland husband, Howards End is a minor nuisance – a country house which does little more than suck money from the family purse.  He prefers to spend his time in their London townhouse, where Ruth wastes away her days amid the useless knick-knacks.  In fact, to her family, she might as well be one of those knick-knacks – beautiful to look at, but silent.

Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) and Margaret (Emma Thompson) Schlegel

The Wilcoxes represent England’s upper class mentality, yet right across the street are the decidedly middle-class Schlegels.  Sisters Margaret (Emma Thompson) and Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) are bohemian enough to mingle with authors and suffragists, but socially acceptable enough to mingle with the upper class Wilcoxes.  Younger sister Helen Schlegel embarks on a brief, ill-fated romance with the youngest Wilcox son.  In commiserating together, Margaret and Ruth Wilcox form a brief but poignant friendship.  In Margaret, Ruth finds a soul mate – someone who shares her love of all things pastoral and intangible.  Ruth wants more than anything for Margaret to see Howards End, to understand.

How Margaret eventually comes to love and embody the spirit of Howards End herself is the complex journey of the film.  Along the way, classes mingle and consequences are born of these alliances. 

We meet the lower class Basts, lonely clerk Leonard (Samuel West) and his sad, pathetic wife  Jacky, who is connected to the Wilcoxes in a way no one would originally suspect.  Leonard becomes a pet project for the Schlegel women, who see a kind soul in Leonard’s unfortunate demeanor.  It is no accident that unusual couplings will form among these three families – Leonard Bast and Helen Schlegel , Margaret Schlegel and Henry Wilcox…Hearts are broken but in time most all are mended, and the classes come together in a most appropriate locale.

This is all set to a brilliant score by Richard Robbins and the lush, breathy cinematography of Tony Pierce-Roberts. In order to buy into the story, we must understand the appeal of Howards End itself, and every shot of this amazing structure is a vacation for the imagination.

Henry and the second Mrs. Wilcox

The performances are all appealing.  Emma Thompson won an Oscar for her portrayal of the earnest, warm Margaret, and Helena Bonham Carter’s Helen is her polar opposite – trampling over serenity to scream for her ideals. 

Samuel West’s Leonard could have been a one-note sad sack, but here he is a misplaced dreamer, forever longing for tranquility and peace someone of his class is not designed to possess.

Anthony Hopkins has the hardest role to play.  Henry Wilcox has few redeeming qualities other than his love of Margaret, but his iron fist is necessary.  Growth must come from destruction, and Margaret’s quest to show him his hypocrisy costs her more than it does Henry himself.

Overall, Howards End is a treat for the eyes and the ears.  Rent it on a cold winter’s day and revel in the warm beauty of the English countryside.

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