It might be 30 years late, but I’ll be catching up on all the Oscar nominees and winners I have missed from the year 1992 through the month of September
Richly layered and magnificently performed, Merchant Ivory’s Howard’s End still stands as one of the peak examples of Edwardian film adaptations as well as the paramount example of the filmed works of author E.M. Forester.
In Edwardian Britain, the impulsive Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) of the middle-class Schlegels family becomes engaged to Paul (Jospeh Bennett) of the conservative and wealthy Wilcox family. Follow the break of the engagement, Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson, in her Oscar-winning role) befriends Ruth (Oscar-nominated Vanessa Redgrave), the matriarch of the Wilcox family. Their fast friendship causes the sickly Ruth to bequeath the family house Howard’s End to Margaret on her death bed. The Wilcox family decides to go against Ruth’s wishes and stops the transaction, without Margaret ever knowing.
The Schlegels befriend a young clerk Leonard Bast (Samuel West) and seek to help him in anyway they can. Helen provides a particular interest in Leonard’s well-being. Meanwhile, the Wilcox widower Henry (Anthony Hopkins) develops an attraction to Margaret and proposes to her, which she accepts.
Weddings, deceits, forgiveness, and money all enter into the picture from all different angles. As three classes of society begin to collide, families divide with their own ideal on who should help whom and what is most important in life.
Clashes between the different social classes rule the narrative. The middle-class Schlagels feel it is part of their obligation in life to help those who they believe deserve greater opportunity. When they happen upon Bast, their goal is to lift him up to the parts of society his manner deserves. When the upper-class Wilcox family enters the picture, all of that help is suppressed. To the Wilcox family, those in the lower-class can only bring down their standing. The upper-class is steeped in pessimism while the middle-class is draped in sunny optimism.
The lives of Margaret and Helen are divided between their own happiness and financial security. While Helen cannot imagine sacrificing her own joy for the sake of security, Margaret eventually succumbs to that temptation. Despite the security, Margaret is stifled by societal pressures to be the person she truly wants to be. Helen is free to be and love whomever she pleases, but is forced to circumvent the scrutiny of those who deem her lesser than they.
Thompson brings a masterclass in emotional buoyancy to the role of Margaret. Her bubbly personality and likeability radiate through the screen through the film’s first half. In the second half, when she is forced to become more insular, her true brilliance shines through. When confronted with Henry’s prior infidelity, she wants to be angry and righteous, but her lot in life does not afford her that privilege. Instead, she has to be forgiving and understanding. The constant push-pull of being her true self and settling for comfort drives her through the remainder of the film. It’s a truly brilliant performance.
Redgrave is warm and maternal in a surprisingly brief role. Carter is equally powerful by being the person she is and refuses to be anything else. While Margaret has to be reserved, Helen gets to express exactly how she feels. The film doesn’t pass judgement on either sister, they just live very different lives by the film’s conclusion. Hopkins is more of a stuffy-shirted vessel than a character. He represents the peak of upper-class hypocrisy but smartly is never shown to be a villain.
In order for the adaptation to be successful, the proper setting needed to be utilized. Oscar-winning Art Directors Luciana Arrighi and Ian Whittaker found locations all over the United Kingdom to stand in for 1910 period appropriate houses and businesses. Additionally, the expansive forests, gardens, and lakes add to the allure.
Ivory specializes in these types of stories. He understands the levels of non-physical violence inherent in each exchange and treats each “violent” encounter with appropriate levels of gravity. Ivory reigns himself in and allows the story to flow out organically. He is never in a rush and allows powerful words to linger and truly grasp what has occurred.
Just as fresh and alive as it was in 1992, Howard’s End may be the pinnacle of Merchant-Ivory productions. Between the powerful themes and the dynamic performances, the film more than deserves the heaps of awards it has already received.
Next week: What could have been a standard biopic turns into an epic film and a towering performance in Malcolm X