‘Howards End’ – ’92 Cinema Revue

Howard’s End – UK Release Date

All-Time Domestic & Worldwide $25,966,555

Howards End marvels as a tale of the importance of human connection within the clashes of social classes.

Writer’s Note: Poison Ivy was scheduled for the week of May 9 – 13. The film is currently not available to rent or stream. When it becomes available, it will get a proper review on Cinema Revue.

Merchant Ivory Productions’ films never called out to me. How would a Mexican kid from Southeast LA ever relate to the trials and tribulations of white anglo-Saxon people from Britain? That would explain why this is my first film from the company.

James Ivory (left) and his life and business partner Ismail Merchant (right) | Source: Indian Express

Founded and helmed by life partners Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, the two made their names for themselves with Shakespeare Wallah in 1965 as a breakout. The two along with screenwriter and author Ruth Prawer Jhabvala set them apart from the rest with their style of period pieces. First, they started with British productions in India but moved onward to the UK and the United States. A Room with A View set the pop-culture view of what goes on in a British period piece. Howards End expanded on that front seven years later. It features Edwardian London, relies on dialogue, and the stuffiest of rich Brits. It’s also an adaptation of E.M. Forster like their 1985 outing. Once again, everything a kid from the hood cannot relate to. Howards End beat all the expectations I had going for it.

At Howards End, Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham Carter) is engaged to Paul Wilcox (Joseph Bennet) and informs her sister Margaret (Emma Thompson). Yet, Paul decides to call off the engagement leading Helen to go back home. A few months pass and she stumbles upon Leonard Bast after stealing his umbrella. Bast is invited into the Schlegel home, only to feel embarrassed as a working-class individual dealing with upper-middle-class residents. The Wilcoxes, including Paul, are living in the flat across the way for a brief moment in time.

Margaret starts a budding relationship with Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave) who delights Margaret in tales of Howards End, a summer home in the country. Yet, the rest of the Wilcoxes see nothing special about the place. Margaret sees the beauty and marvels about going even after Ruth has long since passed. Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins) gets more familiar with the Schlegel family with Bast and his wife Jacky (Nicola Duffet) getting caught in the middle of the struggle of classes trying to connect.

Howards End tackles class issues and the importance of connection with characters that are anything but one-dimensional. It took me a minute to see where this was going to go with Bast seeming to be a character that would be a throwaway elsewhere. Here, he is integral to the plot as another representative of the working class. The Schlegels are well-off, but not as well off as the fortunes of the Wilcoxes. When all three meet, the lack of connection and solid communication is clear.

Margaret Schengal (Emma Thompson) comforts Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins) | Source: Cohen Media Group

The Wilcoxes always gossip, make snide comments toward the poor, and are in their own heads most of the time. The Schlegels are kind-hearted, if a bit overboard in Helen’s case, but do have a sense of humanity to them. The Basts yearn to get out of their class with Leonard desperate to try to find a job to not be near starving. All three do share commonalities in that they all strive for more and to keep themselves above water.

Henry Wilcox is a man more worried about his reputation and his own desires rather than that of those around him. He is misogynistic, a hypocrite, and the definition of a colonizer. When Margaret tries to communicate with him, there is this disconnect as he only sees the surface level and demands to always be in the right. Margaret is a much deeper thinker and has more of the educated talk, which Wilcox wants nothing to do with. The Wilcoxes scoff at literature and chortle at the mention of music having meaning. They even suspect Margaret is using the family and Ruth’s kindness to garner Howards End for herself.

Leonard Bast of the working class understands the arts quite well. He loves literature and the charting of stars, but his wife Jacky dismisses it as nonsense. He has the longing for more than what life has given him long after Henry’s poor advice to quit his job. Bast is a tragic figure as he is always near the precipice of more, only for the universe to come down on him. Helen wants to help the Basts thrive, but is taken to task by Henry and Margaret at one point. Yet, all three families fail to form an understanding resulting in miscommunications.

When a secret about infidelity comes to light involving the Basts and Wilcoxes, Henry is more upset about his family’s reputation. When he’s forgiven, he does not understand because he doesn’t deserve it. When Helen gets pregnant out of wedlock, Wilcox dismisses her outright and has no respect. Margaret immediately calls out his hypocritical stance. The personality clashes in the film make it go from a cliche British period piece to something that would still work in a marvelous way.

Thompson is brilliant as Margaret giving her heart and soul as only Thompson could deliver. There’s grace to her with realistic viewpoints of life while appreciating the need to get lost in art. She and Hopkins play great off one another with her capturing the desire to have some form of relationship. There is a chemistry between the two in the way of oil meeting water. Yet, given the route the film intends on, it’s needed to capture the disconnect between them. Hopkins excels as Henry in the cold and callous department with a great performance to follow his Oscar win from The Silence of the Lambs. He has a calm coolness to him at first that is welcoming, but falls clear into jerkass territory when the time comes. Both returns for another Merchant-Ivory Production, The Remains of the Day, and now I’m curious to see how they play off one another in that film. Bonham Carter deserves recognition as well as she is sharp-witted and angsty at times without ever being annoying.

Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson) stares into the distance. Thompson would win the Academy Award for Best Actress | Source: Cohen Media Group

From a cinematic point, this is a perfect combination of production design, costuming, and cinematography. It’s a marriage that immerses the viewer into the period of Edwardian London that breathes life into every frame. Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts with Ivory’s direction makes it pop, even in the finest of moments. The daydreams of Bast wandering in the book he is reading are timeless with flowering fields shining with vibrancy. One of my favorite shots yet has no vibrancy but rather in the shadows of a train station as Margaret stands against the smoke of the railroad tracks. It’s remarkable in its backlighting and its framing.

The costumes by Jenny Beavin exude the era with waistcoats, driving goggles and Edwardian dresses abound. Beavin has five Oscars to her name and there is a reason why her work is immaculate. How this movie and Mad Max: Fury Road have the same designer I’ll never know. The production design for the scenes filmed in various UK locations feels as if it is a window in time. I’m impressed whenever films can redress long-standing locals and buildings to how they may have looked during their first years of life. It’s impeccable.

Howards End excels at being timeless by delivering a story that still works today. The story of disconnection due to wealth and class status has been a constant and seems to remain one. Thompson and Hopkins are electric with their characters showing the greatness of humanity and the harmfulness that comes without it. The cinematography and production s a whole capture the era as if it were filmed in 1910. Howards End is a remarkable journey that I’ll be happy to revisit once again.

Revue Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Next week, better get out the Cortizone 10 to prepare for the touch of Poison Ivy.

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