Like the novel that inspired it, the film revolves around an issue that affects every aspect of English society, and a great many aspects of American society as well: social and economic class, which draws arbitrary lines between people based not on individual worth but on wealth, power, and prestige. The three Schlegel sisters - Margaret, Helen, and Tibby - belong to the upper middle class. They are comfortable but not rich: they rent rather than own a home, and their acquaintance with Continental culture, signaled by their family name and ability to speak German, brings few tangible benefits. Henry and Ruth Wilcox are much higher in the pecking order, belonging to the landed gentry and positively oozing money, influence, and real estate. Leonard Bast and his fiancée Jacky are near the opposite end of the spectrum, clinging to the meager comforts of the lower middle class and knowing that even these will never be entirely secure. Then as now, a lost job or unexpected crisis could bring hardships that more privileged people rarely have to think about, much less confront.
Two pivotal incidents drive the story. One involves wealthy Ruth Wilcox, who is growing weaker by the day from the illness that will soon take her life. Margaret Schlegel befriends her, going Christmas shopping with her and sharing quiet conversations about everyday affairs, such as the fact that the lease on the Schlegels' townhouse is expiring and the sisters are looking for a new place. Margaret is quite chipper about this, but it strikes Ruth as a sad situation. Lying on her deathbed, she impulsively writes a note leaving her family's ancestral estate, Howards End, to Margaret rather than her own husband. When she dies soon afterward, Henry and the grown Wilcox offspring receive this note and have a family conference, deciding to burn the message and pretend it never existed. Among the many consequences of this sneaky act, Henry feels a nagging guilt that eventually leads him to marry Margaret, who moves into Howards End after all, still with no idea that she herself should be the owner.
The other key event involves Leonard Bast, a mild-mannered bank clerk who likes to read and take dreamy walks through the countryside, partly to get away from Jacky, the culture-free girlfriend he has promised to marry. After a lecture one evening, scatterbrained Helen Schlegel wanders off with Leonard's umbrella, and when he visits her house to retrieve it, the sisters take a liking to him. Some time later, Henry Wilcox happens to mention that the bank where Leonard works is in very bad financial shape; the Schlegels contact Leonard immediately and tell him to find a new job with a more secure establishment. Leonard heeds their advice with horrible results, finding himself with no job at all to support himself and his new wife. Feeling responsible for their desperate condition, Helen brings Leonard and Jacky to a family wedding, where Jacky drunkenly spills the beans about an affair she had with Henry years earlier. Margaret forgives Henry for the affair and for keeping it secret, but when Helen shows up pregnant by Leonard a few months later, Henry is not so quick to absolve a woman of the same sins he himself has committed. The climax takes place at Howards End, where a tragic killing occurs amid high emotions, family resentments, and confusions arising from a vague realization that class-based conventions are gradually moving toward a new, less benighted era.
The plot of Howards End may sound complicated and the social issues may seem abstract, but the story is always crystal clear, and the sociological overtones are embodied so intimately by the characters that far from weakening the drama, they add to it by raising the stakes for all concerned. They remain important issues now, moreover; the gap between rich and poor, the double standard for sexuality, and old-fashioned materialism still cause plenty of trouble. Excellent acting also brings the film to life. Thompson's prizewinning portrayal of Margaret is so natural and understated that it scarcely seems like a performance at all. Helena Bonham Carter is equally convincing as the sometimes frazzled Helen, and Vanessa Redgrave is extraordinarily good as Ruth, who seems to fade away before your eyes. Among the men, Anthony Hopkins gives a strong yet subtle depiction of wealthy, hypocritical Henry that tops even his acclaimed work for Merchant Ivory in The Remains of the Day (1993) the following year. Samuel West as Leonard and James Wilby as Henry's pompous son are close to perfect. Ditto for Tony Pierce-Roberts's luminous cinematography and Richard Robbins's pulsing, energetic music.
Taking a fresh look at Howards End is a good way to remember the greatness of Merchant Ivory Productions, which Ivory and Merchant founded in 1961. It's ironic that even when the group was at its creative peak, from the 1970s through the early 1990s, moviegoers tended to forget how varied their movies are. For some, Merchant and Ivory were primarily the monarchs of literary adaptation, dedicated to novels by towering authors. This is true as far as it goes: Forster inspired Howards End and A Room with a View (1985) and Maurice (1987), while Henry James inspired The Europeans (1979) and The Bostonians (1984) and The Golden Bowl (2000), a novel everyone else thought was unfilmable. For others, Merchant Ivory was the outfit that made movies set in Merchant's native India, such as Bombay Talkie (1970) and Heat and Dust (1983). Still others saw the team as dignified chroniclers of modern life, sometimes focusing on bygone decades, as in The Wild Party (1975) and Quartet (1981), and sometimes on the present day, as in Roseland (1977) and Jane Austen in Manhattan (1980).
In fact, however, they did excellent work in all these areas, and even their adaptations ranged beyond the literary classics; one of their very greatest films, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries (1998), is based on Kaylie Jones's autobiographical novel about growing up with author James Jones for a father. It's fitting that Merchant Ivory has been called the Wandering Company, since its interests wandered far and wide over the years. Howards End is one of the most exquisite stops they made during the journey.
Director: James Ivory
Producer: Ismail Merchant
Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala; based on the novel by E.M. Forster
Cinematographer: Tony Pierce-Roberts
Film Editing: Andrew Marcus
Art Direction: John Ralph
Production Design: Luciana Arrighi
Music: Richard Robbins
With: Vanessa Redgrave (Ruth Wilcox), Helena Bonham Carter (Helen Schlegel), Joseph Bennett (Paul Wilcox), Emma Thompson (Margaret Schlegel), Prunella Scales (Aunt Juley), Adrian Ross Magenty (Tibby Schlegel), Jo Kendall (Annie), Anthony Hopkins (Henry J. Wilcox), James Wilby (Charles Wilcox), Jemma Redgrave (Evie Wilcox), Samuel West (Leonard Bast), Nicola Duffett (Jacky Bast)
by David Sterritt