A story centering on three families from the upper, the upper-middle, and the lower classes of British Society. Love and economics team up to break down a rigid class structure in the early Twentieth Century.
Nominated for 9 Oscars, including Best Picture.
Won: Best Actress: Emma Thompson, Screenwriting: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Art Direction; Set Décor: Luciana Arrighi; Ian Whittaker
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The sky could do a great many things prior to World War II, but it could not make a jet stream. This dawned on me somewhere in the middle of the film: a shot of an old castle and the sky. ‘Ha! Here is a fault. There must be others’. I may be wrong about the jet stream; but faults are hard to come by in ‘Howards End’ and one reaches for straws.
It’s a topflight film that if not a clear-cut masterpiece does us the service of making it impossible for lesser films to claim that distinction – it sets the bar very high. Everything about the film is rendered with exquisite attention to detail: a period piece: you can’t fault the production values or the acting.
Howards End is a country house owned by Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave – nominated for an Oscar for this role). The film opens with Ruth roaming the grounds, through the tall overgrown meadows. The place enchants her; it enchants us. She moves closer to the house – it is early evening. She passes a window and from within we catch the sights and sounds of her happy family. Things are as they should be. We feel this.
The Wilcox’s take a flat across the street from the Schlegels in London. It is a year after the incident. Margaret (Thompson), Helen’s older sister, feels impelled to clear the air between the families and she calls on Ruth. The two become fast friends. Ruth is not well, she is dying. But before she does she wants to show Margaret ‘Howards End’, her beloved country home.
Then there is Henry Wilcox (Hopkins), the unyielding face of British Industry, Ruth’s husband. When he suggests to the Schlegel sisters that their young clerk should quit his position and find another with better prospects he thinks nothing of the outcome. His advice backfires and Bast falls into a downward spiral from which he never recovers. Charged with this news Henry shrugs it off – it’s all part of the battle of life.
Which of course it is and ever will be: but might not society function better with a few safety nets? How does a gilded carriage make its way down an avenue if it is littered with the poor? This is a central argument in the film; that and the growing feminizing influence of --umm – women – who until this time did not have the vote.
Ruth dies and the Wilcox’s discover a will in her handwriting, but without signature, willing Howards End to Margaret. The Wilcox family quietly meet and dispose of the document. Nevertheless Henry finds himself attracted to Margaret and after a few social get-togethers he proposes. She accepts. It’s an astonishing moment, handled with aplomb by two Oscar winning actors.
Still Helen is determined that some form of compensation be paid Bast. She runs aground against Margaret who must stand by her man. But Margaret has her ways and Helen has hers and there are benevolent forces at work.
It’s telling that the name of the story is Howards End – in story telling the title traditionally falls to the protagonist. If that’s true in this instance the place works its magic toward the good and against the not so good – let us imagine Howards End is England in microcosm – our author instructs us things will work out for the best -- “Movies where good things happen to good people – I don’t go to those” to paraphrase Mamet. I generally agree; but for ‘Howards End’ I make an exception.
The emotional pallet of the film is altogether different from what we expect: the broad strokes of love, hate, greed, lust and yuks… What to do with high spirited well-bred people? They simply won’t crash and burn on cue. Loneliness drives them not to a bar, but a music hall. Shading becomes everything and we must readjust our vision. It’s like walking out of a comic book and into a Renoir; disconcerting at first, but then thoroughly engaging.
There are few close-ups and no extreme close-ups – almost a feeling of: ‘we’ve paid a fortune for theses set pieces, props and lighting, why would we throw it away on a close-up’? ‘To let the viewer in’ is the answer and ‘to let the character out’, out of this black frame and out from behind this sheen of glass. The climax comes at the hands of Bast and Charles, Henry’s son. Here at last is a scene of action and it is handled with all the finesse of a tourist ordering a meal in a foreign capitol.
It may be said the material is not helping – what works for a novel may not always translate to film. No one will ever make a great ‘Great Gatsby’. Film wants to move – ignore this imperative and you’d better have reason. The material of Howards End rarely affords such movement; but you can push it a stop: the material is conservative: let your style become more liberal.
The script does this on a number of occasions: we follow Bast as he imagines himself wandering the countryside of a favourite novel, wonderful. I would allow the cameraman this freedom, more dolly and crane shots, extreme close-ups… more freedom -- take off the corsett and let the thing breathe.
None of which belies the thrill of watching people from a distant place and time wrestle with that time and the never ending puzzle of being human – on that score Howards End is a masterpiece, and you can do no better.