Academics usually squeeze the life out of E.M. Forster’s classic novel Howards End by treating it as an allegory for the class war in Edwardian England. Rest assured, there is nothing pedantic about the movie version, which hews closer to Forster’s humanism than his symbolism. Incisively witty, provocative and acted to perfection, this sublime entertainment is a career peak for producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who also triumphed with Forster’s Room With a View. Forster’s effort to draw meaning and hope from a society divided by money, class, culture and social irresponsibility is time-lier than ever in the post-Bonfire era. The film serves Forster by taking to heart the book’s epigraph: “Only connect.”
Check the hypnotic opening scene: In the hush of evening, Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave) — the mistress of a country manor called Howards End — strolls the grounds, blissfully unconcerned that she’s trailing her gown in the sopping grass. Inside the house her businessman husband, Henry (Anthony Hopkins), and greedy children busy themselves in separate worlds while her younger son, Paul (Joseph Bennett), flirts with his freethinking houseguest, Helen Schlegel (a radiant Helena Bonham Carter). The scene, deftly shot by Tony Pierce-Roberts, captures the novel’s essence in quick strokes. We sense Ruth’s love of nature and Henry’s abhorrence of it, just as we discern Paul’s fear of Helen’s emancipation.
Though Helen soon breaks off with Paul, her sharp-witted older sister, Margaret (Emma Thompson), befriends his mother. Ruth’s spiritual bond to the rural tradition of Howard’s End strikes a chord in Margaret, who lives with Helen and their student brother, Tibby (Adrian Ross Magenty), in a London Victorian about to be razed for modern flats that Forster called “the architecture of hurry.”
Though Redgrave’s role is small, she’s never given a more delicate or heartfelt performance. Given the actress’s leftist politics, the scene in which Ruth chides Margaret for supporting women’s suffrage wins unintentional laughs, but Redgrave’s hold on her character soon restores the balance. On her deathbed, Ruth scrawls a note leaving Howards End (one of many Wilcox properties) to Margaret — a note that her family destroys.
A twinge of guilt leads the widowed Henry to pay a call on the Schlegels. He scorns the chaos of their lively London household and their friendship with Leonard Bast (Sam West), a timid married clerk whom the sisters have decided to instruct in the arts and social graces. But Henry is bewitched by Margaret’s vitality. His later marriage proposal to her on a staircase is uncommonly funny and touching — he lacks the romantic finesse to do it properly, and she is too filled with ardor to respond in more than monosyllables.
The marriage of Henry and Margaret links the worlds of money and intellect and the strands of the plot. Henry’s reluctant efforts to help Bast leave the clerk jobless and nearly homeless, while revelations of adultery and out-of-wedlock pregnancy prompt Henry’s older son, Charles (James Wilby), to take precipitous action that results in tragedy.
Hopkins, the thinking Oscar voter’s choice for The Silence of the Lambs, makes Henry a seductive blend of charm and ruthlessness. And Thompson is thrilling in a performance that ranks her with the best actresses of her generation. Nothing in Thompson’s previous film work — the light-comic Tall Guy and Dead Again — prepares us for the depth of feeling she brings to Margaret. Growing less verbal and more reflective, she absorbs betrayals, initiates change and creates the balance necessary for the warring factions around her to achieve a hard-won harmony.
For Forster, the fight over who will inherit Howards End was a symbolic fight over England itself. His acceptance of the melting pot and the blurring of class distinctions didn’t stop him from mourning the passing of tradition. Jhabvala’s remarkably fluid script cuts to the core of Forster’s concerns about the danger of shutting off feeling. In detailing the problems of rebuilding a society from the ashes of greed, the film of Howards End speaks in fresh, startling ways to a new generation. It’s a satisfying irony indeed that a book published in 1910 has become the first great movie of 1992.