Blog Directory CineVerse: A fine film that explores England at a crossroads

A fine film that explores England at a crossroads

Monday, July 4, 2022

James Ivory and Ismail Merchant created a plethora of prestige pictures and acclaimed period dramas, particularly in their heyday of the 1980s through 1990s. One of their most revered works is Howards End (now celebrating a 30th anniversary), a 1992 adaptation of an E.M. Forster novel that pairs Anthony Hopkins (fresh off his Academy Award-winning role a year earlier in The Silence of the Lambs) with Emma Thompson who earned Oscar gold for her performance in this film. Any self-respecting film society would find several fascinating facets in Howards End worth discoursing about, and that was certainly true of CineVerse, which examined this movie last week. A summary of our chat topics follows (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What struck you as arresting, unexpected, and memorable about Howards End?

  • The filmmakers employ curious fadeouts in the middle of a scene as if to suggest that we must compartmentalize each fragmented mini-scene within the larger scene and reflect upon it briefly before progressing.
  • It’s interesting to speculate on why Margaret and Helen decide to marry, as they don’t seem to have great chemistry or express much reciprocal affection. Perhaps Henry feels remorse for ignoring his late wife’s wish to bequeath Howards End to Margaret; and possibly Margaret is “still curiously taking a sort of social revenge based on their song’s slight of her younger sister,” according to reviewer Nicholas Bell.
  • This is a film more focused on interrelationships and communication (or lack thereof) between characters than on the typical trappings of a period piece; indeed, Howards End doesn’t indulge in sensationalistic melodrama or linger on torrid romantic angles or eroticized subplots.
  • The engine that propels this movie is the cast, and by extension, the performances. This could be Emma Thompson’s best work, and it’s easy to forget how good an actress Helena Bonham Carter was, particularly in her younger years. Likewise, Samuel West elicits great sympathy as Bast.
  • This is one of several Forster adaptations that earned high plaudits; among the others were Maurice, and A Room With a View (both by Merchant/Ivory), A Passage to India, and Where Angels Fear to Tread.

Major themes

  • Class conflict and the dichotomy between the privileged and the disadvantaged in turn-of-the-century England.
  • The contrasts between and coexistence of opposite forces. We are shown bucolic, picturesque visions of nature juxtaposed with close-ups of then-modern machines like the telegraph, trains, and automobiles; likewise, we see how different a high-strung, impulsive, and passionate character like Helen is compared to the prim and proper Henry.
  • Bridging the divides and communicating between social classes and different personalities. Emotionally intelligent Margaret serves as the bridge between disparate types: the wealthy, ill-mannered, and morally irresponsible (the Wilcoxes) and the poor but morally virtuous (the Basts). By inheriting Howards End at the conclusion of the story, she provides a safe refuge for her sister and her young nephew, who will later inherit the property.
    • Criterion Collection essayist Kenneth Turan wrote: “Margaret Schlegel is the force that powers Howards End, the only character possessed of the moral strength to cope with a society in extremis.”
    • Roger Ebert wrote: “There are two conversations in "Howards End" (1992) between Henry Wilcox, a wealthy businessman, and Margaret Schlegel, who becomes his second wife. The first is amusing, the second desperate, and they express the film's buried subject, which is the impossibility of two people with fundamentally different values ever being able to really communicate… The challenge for Margaret in her marriage is to make the best of her new world, to broker communication between two sets of values.”
  • The hypocrisies of the rich and powerful. Henry looks down upon Leonard Bast for having an affair with his sister-in-law that ends in pregnancy, even though he years ago had a mistress he treated badly and easily could have impregnated.
  • The passing of an era, as exemplified by the antiquated but charming Howards End estate itself, which isn’t valued by the upper crust and is seen as an anachronism in an increasingly industrialized country but which is prized by those with artistic sensibilities and an appreciation for quaintness and simple virtues.
    • Reviewer Nicholas Bell wrote: “The eponymous estate is, of course, a metaphor for the crumbling prestige of England, of its honorable, even majestic past which is too quaint to properly function in the increasingly industrialized world. When Redgrave’s querulous and hopelessly self-involved Mrs. Wilcox innocently remarks on how ‘I think about my house,” her obsessive notions about its future are all wrapped up in the blissful memories of her past.’”

Similar works

  • The Age of Innocence
  • Sense and Sensibility
  • Phantom Thread
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Gosford Park
  • The Rules of the Game
  • The Wings of the Dove
  • The Golden Bowl
  • Downton Abbey

Other films by James Ivory/Ismail Merchant

  • The Bostonians
  • A Room With a View
  • Maurice
  • The Remains of the Day

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