Saturday 11 April 2020

Movie Review: Howards End (1992)

A romantic drama, Howard End is a sly story of love, scheming, charity and social chasms colliding in savory mayhem.

The setting is England in the early 1900s. Romantic Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham-Cater) has a short-lived fling with Paul Wilcox (Joseph Bennett) while staying at the Wilcox's Howards End country home. Back in London, Paul's dying mother Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave) forges a strong emotional bond with Helen's older sister Meg (Emma Thompson), and on her deathbed Ruth wills the Howards End estate to Meg, having learned the Schlegels will soon be forced to move from their family home.

Meanwhile, a chance encounter introduces the Schlegel sisters to Leonard and Jacky Bast (Samuel West and Nicola Duffett), a poor couple from the wrong side of the tracks. Leonard is a lowly clerk but avid reader, while Jacky is an unrefined ex-tart.

Ruth's husband Henry (Anthony Hopkins) along with materialistic daughter Evie (Jemma Redgrave) and spineless son Charles (James Wilby) decide to ignore Ruth's final wish. But Henry is lonely and perhaps suffering tinges of guilt. He is gradually attracted to Meg, finally proposing marriage. Meanwhile Helen adopts the cause of the Basts, doing her best to help them steer towards a better life, causing unpredictable outcomes.

Far from a stodgy costume period piece, Howards End is a conspiracy-rich, irony-filled and brisk drama. The E.M. Forster book is breezily adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and director James Ivory fills the 142 minutes of running time with plenty of character details, lavish sets and outdoor cinematography, bringing to life the people and places of England in the early 20th century across the social spectrum.

The film tackles remarkably current topics. The gap between rich and poor is an overarching theme, in particular the rub points where their disparate worlds interact. The Basts live in a cramped apartment a few feet from rumbling trains, and yet an innocuous umbrella incident brings Leonard into the orbit of the Schlegels, forever changing his world. Another and potentially more calamitous connection between the Basts and the world of wealth is revealed later on.

The pragmatic Meg is caught in the middle between her future husband and loving sister. Henry represents the dismissive rich-are-rich, poor-are-poor and isn't-that-too-bad mainstream thinking, while Helen is a passionate social justice warrior of her era. She simply refuses to let the Basts drift off into their life of misery, and advocates with increasing fervor for the haves to help the have-nots. As with all the story arcs in Howards End, good intentions can have unintended consequences, and individual quests are laced with the irony of fate's playful hands charting an invisible long-term course.

Despite the long length Howards End suffers from some annoying loose threads in content and tone, the gaps materializing somewhere between Jhabvala's script and the film's final edit. Helen's fiery dedication to the cause of the Basts almost sideswipes the film in its decontextualized vigor. One previously pivotal character just disappears in the final 20 minutes, while the Schlegel's Aunt Juley (Prunella Scales) and Henry's son Paul (Joseph Bennett) oscillate from essential to immaterial.

But the quality performances ride out the rough patches, Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins particular standouts portraying two strong and adept but different characters orbiting each other. And as the pensive matriarch Vanessa Redgrave is unforgettable setting events in motion by creating a deserved moral conundrum for her family.

Howards End is picturesque and idyllic, but also churns with absorbing domestic turmoil.

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