E. M. Forster’s Howards End is a timeless tour de force on class struggles in Edwardian England. Featuring breathtaking imagery to match a surprisingly compelling narrative, the message of Howards End is as applicable now as it was then: the rich get richer while the poor get poorer, and those in power are clearly to blame.
The film, first released in 1992, racked up numerous guild and critics’ honors before it culminated its run at the Academy Awards with three statues. Like many award-winning period pieces, it almost immediately left the public’s eye and drifted into near obscurity. After all, how many people do you hear discussing Sense and Sensibility, Gosford Park, or even Shakespeare in Love nowadays? Such films come along, win their awards (usually for costume design), and then seemingly disappear. Howards End definitely deserves more attention, and thanks to the good people at the Criterion Collection, it just may get it.
As is now customary for their offerings, the Criterion Blu-ray and two-disc DVD come loaded with special features and a crystal clear rendering of the film itself. The Schlegel sisters and their surrounding have never looked so good, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The Schlegel sisters are Helen (played by Helena Bonham-Carter) and Margaret (Emma Thompson). Both are single. Both attend women’s meetings and read progressive literature. Both live in a soon-to-be demolished house in England.
Enter the aristocrats. Paul and Ruth Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins and an absolutely delightful Vanessa Redgrave) first encounter the Schlegels when one of their sons proposes and then rescinds his marriage offer to Helen. Both separate on as good of terms as can be expected, but a friendship is nevertheless founded between Margaret and Ruth. The two become very close, but soon tragedy strikes and the families are again driven apart… temporarily.
Enter the working class. After a chance meeting, Helen and Margaret befriend a lowly dreamer struggling to make ends meet. The Schlegels then run into Mr. Wilcox after one of their meetings and ask his advice for their poor friend, Mr. Bast. What seems like a purely caring exchange spirals into something much more complex, and there you have it. A class war has been born.
If all of this sounds a little complicated, remember one thing: this is a period piece. A slightly complex narrative is necessary to hold interest and drive the characters forwards, and clocking in at142 minutes, it’s quite a stretch for any film, but this plot keeps viewers dialed in for the entirety. Is it a touch long? Yes, but to be this spot on of an adaptation from literature relieves the filmmakers of any extraneous details.
Helping out along the way are an extremely able cast. The aforementioned loveliness of Redgrave is positively luminous. She brings so much grace to a role that could have otherwise been a character of pure object of hatred it’s darn right shocking. Not only does she make us forget Mrs. Wilcox’s proclivities towards social repression, she almost brings the audience to her side through her repeated, if ignorant, kindness to all who surround her.
Hopkins is also terrific as the stubborn-minded husband who finds himself in repeated moral quandaries. Samuel West does the job as the confused Mr. Bast, but Howards End is a woman’s story at heart. Therefore it comes as no surprise the film’s actresses shine the brightest. Thompson, in her first Academy Award winning performance, must carry her character through an appropriately wide range of emotions, obligations, and difficult decisions. Margaret may slip-up occasionally, but thanks to Thompson’s portrayal (and an adept script), even these imperfections are debatable.
Bonham-Carter is powerful as the passionate, demanding youngster who sees things in black and white, but her character is called on for far less complexity than her older sister. Combine them all together and you’ve got an all-star cast in top form. Add in a well-crafted script and direction with a great eye for capturing the countryside, and, well, you’ve got Howards End.
All of the film’s aspects are expanded and expounded on in the disc’s above mentioned special features. A 42-minute documentary presents reflective interviews with producer Ismail Merchant and Ivory (who teamed to create Merchant Ivory Productions), Carter, and a few of the designers. Most interesting is the interaction between the two-man production team. Throughout the doc, they voice what are obviously long-running disagreements over seemingly minor facets of the movie’s creation.
More of these little snippets can be found in the 49-minute documentary about the duo’s long-running company, Merchant Ivory Productions. Perhaps more relevant to today, though, is the 12-minute interview with Ivory on his now deceased partner. It’s short, but still provides a compelling background on the founding of their partnership. If all that isn’t enough for you, there is also an eight-minute film on the production design, a making-of doc from 1992, and a beautifully written piece by Kenneth Turan of The Los Angeles Times on the film’s significance. The only downside to the bonus materials for fans is the absence of Hopkins and Thompson from the new footage.
Though it would have been nice to see two prominent actors still working consistently in Hollywood to be there, backing their past work, it should be clear by now the film can stand on its own two metaphorical feet. Its genre may never dominate the box office, but there should still be a place on everyone’s shelf for at least one great period piece. Why not make it Howards End? After all, the latest version is the next best thing to a first-edition of the novel itself.