Review: Howard’s End (1992)


Howard’s End (1992)

Directed by: James Ivory | 142 minutes | drama, romance | Actors: Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter, Joseph Bennett, Emma Thompson, Prunella Scales, Adrian Ross Magenty, Jo Kendall, Anthony Hopkins, James Wilby, Jemma Redgrave, Ian Latimer, Samuel West

They are listed in the Guinness Book of World Records; James Ivory and Ismail Merchant. Their professional partnership lasted 44 years, from 1961 until Merchant’s death in 2005. No other duo in the history of independent cinema lasted longer. Director Ivory and producer Merchant were partners not only on a business level, but also privately. Where this could possibly make cooperation more difficult for others, it only worked out positively for them. The two met in New York in 1959, during a screening of one of Ivory’s first (short) films, “The Sword and the Flute.” Two years later, they founded their joint production company Merchant Ivory Productions. They would make nearly forty films, of which the classic costume dramas ‘A Room with a View’ (1985), ‘Howards End’ (1992) and ‘The Remains of the Day’ (1993) are the best known and most acclaimed. In fact, Merchant Ivory was a trinity as the screenplays of most of their films were written by the same woman: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1927-2013). Speaking about their collaboration, Ismail Merchant once said, “It’s a strange marriage we have at Merchant Ivory… I’m a Native American Muslim, Ruth is a German Jewess and Jim is a Protestant American. Someone once called us a three-headed god, but maybe they should have called us a three-headed monster!”

‘Howards End’, based on a novel by EM Forster, was recently digitally restored (4K), in honor of its twenty-fifth birthday. The revamped version of this classic British drama, based on the love entanglements and class conflicts at the beginning of the twentieth century, is brought back into circulation. Howards End is the name of a beautiful estate owned by the Wilcox family. Paterfamilias is Henry (Anthony Hopkins), a conservative businessman who has become wealthy thanks to the successes of his Imperial and West African Rubber Company. However, the estate is owned by his wife Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave), a descendant of large landowners. The lives of the Wilcox family run parallel to those of the Schlegels, a culturally and intellectually educated, progressive family from the German-British bourgeoisie. Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham-Carter) hooks up with Paul Wilcox (Joseph Bennett), but the relationship ends just as quickly as it started. Months later, the Wilcox family moves into a London apartment opposite that of the Schlegels, and although they differ greatly, Ruth and Helen’s older sister Margaret (Emma Thompson) develop a warm, friendly bond. At the same time, Helen becomes acquainted with Leonard Bast (Samuel West), an office clerk of humble origins who has more to offer than his social position suggests. He lives with Jackie (Nicola Duffett), a woman of dubious reputation. Helen is concerned about their fate and wants to help them.

Margaret and Ruth’s friendship comes to an abrupt end when the latter falls ill and dies. On her deathbed, Ruth writes that she bequeaths Howards End to Margaret, who has been told to move out of her house. Doubting that she wrote it in her right mind, Henry and his children burn the note, never informing Margaret of its contents. Months pass and something beautiful develops between Henry and Margaret. The two even decide to marry, much to Helen’s chagrin, who hates Henry because Leonard Bast lost his job at an insurance company thanks to misinformation she received from him and now lives even harder than before. At the wedding of Henry’s daughter Evie (Jemma Redgrave) she decides to visit with Leonard and Jackie Bast. When it turns out that Jackie and Henry had a great time together, Margaret’s confidence and sense of honor is tested. Meanwhile, Helen decides to leave for Germany, but not before she has gone to bed with Leonard.

When you read the worries like this, the story of ‘Howards End’ almost seems like a soap opera. Nothing could be further from the truth. EM Forster’s story has too many subtleties, underlying themes and complexity for that. Not to mention the impressive cast – but more on that in a moment. At the time in which this story is set, and certainly in Great Britain, your origin determined the course of your life. Anyone who wanted to break through had to come from exceptionally good families. But times are changing, albeit slowly. The conservative thinking (of the Wilcox family) is gradually making way for the progressive thinking of the Schlegels. This is woven into the script in a way that is both subtle and effective. It is right that screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was awarded an Oscar for this (the film cashed in on three of its nine nominations). The film looks, even twenty-five years later, to pass through a ring. The sets, sets and costumes immediately draw you into the early twentieth century and the camera work – the film was largely shot in Oxfordshire – is beautiful and stylish. Luciana Arrighi (the estate that represents Howards End is owned by friends of hers) and Ian Whittaker received an Oscar for their joint efforts in Art Direction and Set Decoration.

But the most convincing is ‘Howards End’ because of the fantastic acting, with the great Emma Thompson in the lead. As Margaret Schlegel, she is a warm, dynamic personality who is easy to connect with and is not afraid to express her opinion or emotions. It is remarkable that this free-spirited woman enters into a relationship – more like a marriage of convenience – with a cold, ultra-conservative hypocrite like Henry Wilcox. We see Margaret slowly changing into a woman who is aware of the fact that she can influence her social standing through her marriage. Despite this, we continue to like her, because we see that she never completely denies her true nature and that she shows her bravery and resilience in difficult and vulnerable moments. Thompson more than rightly earned a laundry list of awards for this role, including an Oscar, a BAFTA and a Golden Globe. But the rest of the cast also shines, especially the women. Helena Bonham-Carter shows what she does best – her passion and quirkiness – as the rebellious Helen and acting legend Vanessa Redgrave, though limited in scope, is the epitome of elegance and class. The fact that Anthony Hopkins, not the least, is less noticeable here is mainly due to the fact that his character is such a cold jerk, although he is regularly outplayed by his opponents.

Classic drama as it is actually no longer made, that’s how you can safely call ‘Howards End’. Stylishly filmed, with themes that still appeal today. But the main reason to see this movie is Emma Thompson on top form. An acting masterclass in a beautifully designed decor. ‘Howards End’ is well worth its restoration!

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