Howards End - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

UK, 1992

Director: James Ivory

Production: Merchant Ivory Productions; Technicolor, 35mm; running time: 142 minutes. Filmed in London, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, 1991.

Producer: Ismail Merchant; screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, based on the novel by E. M. Forster; photography: Tony-Pierce Roberts; editor: Andrew Marcus; assistant directors: Chris Newman, Simon Moseley, Carol Oprey; production designer: Luciana Arrighi; art director: John Ralph; music: Richard Robbins; sound editors: Campbell Askew, Sarah Morton; sound recordists: Mike Shoring, Keith Grant; costume design: Jenny Beaven, John Bight.

Cast: Anthony Hopkins ( Henry Wilcox ); Emma Thompson ( Margaret Schlegel ); Vanessa Redgrave ( Ruth Wilcox ); Helen-Bonham Carter ( Helen Schlegel ); James Wilby ( Charles Wilcox ); Samuel West ( Leonard Bast ); Prunella Scales ( Aunt Juley ); Joseph Bennett ( Paul Wilcox ); Adrian Ross Magenty ( Tibby Schlegel ); Jo Kendall ( Annie ); Jemma Redgrave ( Evie Wilcoz ).

Awards: Oscars for Best Actress (Thompson), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Art Direction, 1992.



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Brand name producer-director teams are a rarity in the movies. Merchant-Ivory is one of the few producer-director teams. It is also the most successful.

Audiences know exactly what to expect of a Merchant-Ivory production: A literate script adapted from an esteemed (and seemingly unfilmable) literary source, sumptuous period decor and costumes, and impeccable acting of the classically trained rather than Method school—a genteel journey into the well-mannered past with not a car chase or explosion in sight nor a foul word to be heard. In other words, a fastidious cinematic equivalent of an episode of public television's long-running series "Masterpiece Theatre"—a comparison Merchant-Ivory's detractors usually point to as the team's major weakness.

Merchant-Ivory's approach certainly flies in the face of conventional wisdom as to what constitutes marketability these days. But their films have been so successful in luring a lucrative new market, the ever-growing over-50 crowd, into theatres that Hollywood could no longer ignore them. As a result, Merchant-Ivory have now been folded into the gargantuan Disney organization and been given the financial backing to up their output, with guaranteed distribution for their elegant period pieces extending far beyond the art house theatres that were previously the team's domain. In addition, other producers have begun adopting the team's formula, turning out one Merchant-Ivory-type film after another like Enchanted April, The Age of Innocence, Shadowlands, Tom and Viv , and Sense and Sensibility , to name but a few.

Producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory (who had initially sought entrance into the movies as a set designer) have been making films since 1963. Their trademark combination of literariness, elegance, and well-bred sophistication did not manifest itself until 1979 with their adaptation of Henry James's novel The Europeans. But their fortunes turned most dramatically with the 1992 Howards End , the team's most popular film up to that time and third adaptation of an E. M. Forster novel following such earlier forays into Forster territory as A Room With a View , a modest success and multiple Academy Award winner that proved to be a harbinger of things to come, and Maurice , a relative flop. Like A Room With a View , Howards End scored big come Academy Award night in some of the "lesser" categories as Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design. But it also captured the Best Actress prize for star Emma Thompson, adding millions of dollars to the picture's already substantial box office take.

A study of class distinction in Edwardian England, Howards End focuses on three families whose lives intersect with tragic and ironic results. Thompson and Bonham Carter play Margaret and Helen,

Howards End
Howards End
sisters of obvious breeding but little means, who befriend working class bank clerk Leonard (West) in an effort to better his situation. They encourage him to get another job when they're tipped that his present employer may go under. They get the tip from wealthy businessman Henry Wilcox (Hopkins) whose wife, Ruth (Redgrave), has befriended Margaret for much the same purpose. Ruth learns that the sisters are faced with losing their home. When Ruth dies, she makes a last-minute bequest, leaving Howards End, her ancestral cottage in the country, to the soon-to-be-displaced Margaret. But Henry and his rotter son, Charles (James Wilby), keep the bequest a secret in order to keep the cottage in the family, even though it goes unused.

After Ruth's death, widower Henry takes up with the vibrant Margaret and eventually marries her. Meanwhile, Helen is made pregnant by Leonard—whose low-class wife had been seduced as a young girl, then tossed aside, by Henry himself. When Margaret learns of her manipulative husband's past indiscretion, she forgives him and requests that Helen be allowed to take up residence at Howards End to have her illegitimate baby. But Henry refuses, hypocritically spurning Helen for her indiscretion, even though it mirrors his own.

The perpetually down-on-his-luck Leonard, unaware that Helen is pregnant, shows up for another hand-out from his benefactors and is accidentally killed by Charles after being subjected to a thrashing. The ensuing scandal and exposed wounds of family dysfunction and class hostility boil to a head and Margaret threatens to leave Henry, a basically decent, albeit misguided man. Like the sisters and even the dead Leonard, he has always sought to do what's right, but achieved mostly wrong instead due to class difference. To hold onto Margaret, he agrees to her single demand that Howards End be turned over to her lock, stock, and barrel. Ironically, the tragic collision of classes has resulted in the property winding up in her hands just as the dying Ruth had long ago wished. And Helen, who had earlier been rejected as a suitable wife by another of Henry's sons, is free to live there and raise the offspring of her lower-class union.

The machinations of Forster's plot may strike some as a bit too reliant on coincidence. But Merchant-Ivory and their superlative crew and cast, lead by the engaging Thompson, bring the period story and characters so vividly to life that the coincidences seem not just credible, but inevitable.

Long, slow but never boring, Howards End trenchantly observes the foibles of its characters while creating a remarkable degree of empathy for them and concern for their respective fates. It grips the eye and the emotions like a good read—the good read, in fact, from which it sprang.

—John McCarty

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