HOWARDS END

Howards EndHomecomings

Most of us connect the notion of “home” or “childhood home” with one particular place, that innocent paradise we have since had to give up and keep searching for forever after. In Ruth Wilcox’s world, Howards End is that place; the countryside house where she was born, where her family often returns to spend their vacations, and which, everyone assumes, will pass on to her children when she is dead.

And it is through Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave)’s eyes that we first see Howards End; approaching the house after an evening walk through her beloved meadow, her long dress trailing in the grass, as she goes nearer, we see the open windows letting out warm light from inside, and hear the voices and laughter from the family’s dinner table. And while Mrs. Wilcox returns to join her family’s company, two others are leaving the house and its serene world: Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham Carter) and Paul Wilcox, embarking on a passionate romance which is not even to survive the next morning – not before, however, Helen has informed her sister Margaret (Emma Thompson) that she and Paul are “in love,” and thus set in motion the first of a series of confusing and controversial meetings between their families.

While both families belong to the middle class, they are nevertheless separated by several layers of society and politics – the Wilcox, led by pater familias / businessman Henry (Anthony Hopkins), rich, conservative and without any sympathy whatsoever for those less fortunate than themselves (“It’s all part of the battle of life … The poor are poor; one is sorry for them, but there it is,” Henry Wilcox once comments); the Schlegels, on the other hand, with just enough income to lead a comfortable life, brought up by their Aunt Juley (Prunella Scales), supporting suffrage (women’s right to vote) and surrounding themselves with actors, “blue-stockings” (feminists), intellectuals and other members of the avantgarde. Further complexity is added when Helen brings to the Schlegel home Leonard Bast (Samuel West), a poor but idealistic young clerk who loves music, literature and astronomy – and with him, his working class wife Jacky (Nicola Duffett), the embarrassment of having to interact with her, and the even more embarrassing revelation she has in store for Henry Wilcox; eventually leaving her disillusioned husband to comment that “books aren’t real,” and that in fact they and music “are for the rich so they don’t feel bad after dinner.”

E.M. Forster‘s novel on which this movie is based is a masterpiece of social study and character study alike; with empathy and a fine eye for detail, Forster brings his protagonists and their environment to life, and James Ivory matches his accomplishment in this screen realization, finding the perfect cast and production design (Luciana Arrighi) to reproduce the novel’s Edwardian society; although he superstitiously declined the offer to film at Forster‘s boyhood home Rooks Nest, the model for the fictional Howards End. The movie brings together many of Britain’s best-known actors, all trained in the English school which, as Anthony Hopkins once explained, unlike Lee Strasberg’s Method Acting, is primarily based on restraint: there are no outbursts of emotion, self-control reigns supreme, and even a simple word like “yes” is reduced even further to “hmm,” leaving it to the actor’s intonation alone to convey the word’s (or sound’s) deeper meaning in a given context. And yet, vocal intonation, looks and little gestures often speak louder than dramatic actions ever could, and they are as essential to the movie’s sense of authenticity as are production design, cinematography (Tony Pierce-Roberts), soundtrack (Richard Robbins) and the selection of the movie’s non-scored music: excerpts from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, a favorite with the “educated” Edwardian middle class, and pieces by period composers Andre Derain and Percy Grainger.

The story centers around Margaret (Meg) Schlegel, who is “filled with … a profound vivacity, a continual and sincere response to all that she encounter[s] in her path through life,” as Forster described her, and portrayed to perfection by Emma Thompson. Meg’s friendship with Ruth Wilcox brings the families back together after Helen’s near-scandalous episode with Paul; and the two women become so close that Ruth eventually decides to give Meg “something worth [her] friendship” – none other than Howards End, a wish that has her panicking family scramble ungentlemanly for every reason in the book to invalidate the codicil setting forth that bestowal, from its lacking date and signature to the testatrix’s state of mind, the ambiguity of the writing’s content, the question why Meg should want the house in the first place since she already has one, and the fact that the writing is only in pencil, which “never counts,” as Dolly, wife of the Wilcox’ elder son Charles is quick to point out; only to be reprimanded by her father in law “from out of his fortress” (Forster) not to “interfere with what you do not understand.” And so it is that Meg will only see the house (and be instantly mistaken for Ruth because she has “her way of walking around the house,” as the housekeeper explains) when she and her siblings have to look for a new home and Henry Wilcox, who has started to court her after Ruth’s death, suggests that the Schlegel’s furniture be temporarily stored there – a fateful decision. And while Meg and Henry slowly and painfully learn to adjust to each other, the complexity of their families’ relations, and their interactions with the Basts, finally come crashing down on them in a dramatic conclusion.

Howards End deservedly won 1992’s Academy Awards for Best Actress (Thompson), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Art Direction; and it was also nominated in the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Redgrave), Best Original Score, Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design categories. Unfortunately, its subtle tones have recently been muted somewhat by the louder sounds now filling movie theaters. I for one, however, will take this sublime movie over any summer action flick anytime.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Merchant-Ivory (1992)
  • Director: James Ivory
  • Executive Producer: Paul Bradley
  • Producer: Ismail Merchant
  • Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
  • Based on a novel by: E.M. Forster
  • Music: Richard Robbins
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Tony Pierce-Roberts
  • Art Direction: John Ralph
  • Costume Design: Jenny Beavan & John Bright
  • Production Design: Luciana Arrighi
  • Set Decoration: Ian Whittaker
Cast
  • Emma Thompson: Margaret Schlegel
  • Helena Bonham Carter: Helen Schlegel
  • Anthony Hopkins: Henry J. Wilcox
  • Vanessa Redgrave: Ruth Wilcox
  • Prunella Scales: Aunt Juley
  • Samuel West: Leonard Bast
  • Nicola Duffett: Jacky Bast
  • Adrian Ross Magenty: Tibby Schlegel
  • Joseph Bennett: Paul Wilcox
  • James Wilby: Charles Wilcox
  • Jemma Redgrave: Evie Wilcox
  • Susie Lindeman: Dolly Wilcox

 

Major Awards and Honors

Academy Awards (1992)
  • Best Actress in a Leading Role: Emma Thompson
  • Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium:
    Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
  • Best Art Direction-Set Decoration: Luciana Arrighi and Ian Whittaker
Golden Globes (1992)
  • Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama: Emma Thompson
National Board of Review Awards (1992)
  • Best Picture – English Language: Ismail Merchant
  • Best Director: James Ivory
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
BAFTA Awards (1992)
  • Best Film: Ismail Merchant and James Ivory
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
Evening Standard British Film Awards (1992)
  • Best Film: James Ivory
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
    – Also for Peter’s Friends (1992).
National Society of Film Critics Awards (1992) (USA)
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards (1992)
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
New York Film Critics’ Circle Awards (1992)
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
Boston Society of Film Critics AwardS (1992)
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
Cannes Film Festival (1992)
  • 45th Anniversary Prize: James Ivory

 

Links

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