Tuesday, April 01, 2014
Based on the novel by E.M. Forster, Howards End is a multi-layered story revolving around different social classes in early 20th Century Edwardian-Britain where a poor woman’s friendship with an industrialist’s wife leads to all sorts of trouble for her family as well as the people they’re connected to. Directed by James Ivory and screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the film is an exploration into the world where a man tries to save the one thing of his wife unaware that she gave it to someone else. Starring Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter, Vanessa Regrave, Samuel West, and James Wilby. Howards End is a remarkable film from James Ivory and the Merchant-Ivory team.
Set in early 20th Century Britain during the Edwardian era, it’s a film where a middle-class woman who unknowingly inherited a country house by an industrialist’s wife whom she had become friends with in the final days of that woman’s life. When her husband reads the handwritten will that his late wife wrote, he schemes to get the house back where he meets the woman only to fall for her. Yet, things become complicated when that woman’s sister tries to help a poor man and his wife whose fortunes have gone bad where it would create dissension between the two sisters. It’s a film that isn’t just about connections between three different families from three different social classes but also in the way they would affect one another and their fortunes in a world where there’s a lot of expectation in Edwardian society.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay takes it time to flesh out the story where she reveals the lives of these three different families. The very rich Wilcoxes led by Henry (Anthony Hopkins) and Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave) with their elder children Charles (James Wilby) and Evie (Jemma Redgrave). The middle-class siblings Margaret (Emma Thompson), Helen (Helena Bonham Carter), and Tibby Schlegel (Adrian Ross Magenty). The last couple is the working-class couple Leonard Bast (Samuel West) and his wife Jacky (Nicola Duffett). All of which are trying to play roles in societies yet they all face struggles with trying to advance themselves with the exception of the Wilcoxes. When Margaret meets the ailing Ruth, the two strike a friendship where Margaret reveals to Ruth about the lease of her home expiring as Ruth wants to help Margaret out where she would hand-write a will leaving Margaret the home that she loved that is called Howards End.
This would later set-up a series of trouble where Henry and his children are dismayed over what Ruth had written as it would play into this second act where Margaret and Helen would diverge due to the involvement of different men. Margaret formally meets Henry where the two fall in love though the latter did decide to help Margaret find a home nearby only for his plans to lose way. Helen meanwhile meets and falls for the working-class clerk Leonard Bast who has been trying to find a job as he accepts the help of Helen and Margaret only for Henry’s presence to cause trouble as it would play to the growing tension between the sisters. It would all play to a troubling third act where there’s more to the connection between Henry and the Basts as well as Margaret being torn in her devotion to Henry and her siblings. It’s not just the way Jhabvala plots everything but also her approach to the language and dialogue that adds more spice and suspense to the story.
James Ivory’s direction is truly ravishing in the way he presents the period of Edwardian Britain at a time where the rich try to maintain their status while looking down at those beneath them. Though the Wilcoxes aren’t entirely bad people, they do have this sense of entitlement that makes them somewhat disconnected from reality. Ivory has unique framing devices in the way he presents them as well as scenes where Charles would eavesdrop into whatever conversations his father would have with Margaret where it’s clear he is going to cause trouble for many. Even as Charles’ somewhat-dim wife Dolly (Susie Lindeman) would also eavesdrop as she knows something isn’t right. It would play to some moments of suspense that occurs in the film while much of the direction in terms of its humor and drama is quite understated.
The approach to putting characters in the frame wouldn’t just play to the dramatic tension that occurs between some of the characters but also to display a sense of a social order that would make Leonard Bast feel uneasy about. Many of the scenes involving Bast has him in places where he either doesn’t fit in or is surrounded by a place of despair in comparison to the world that the Wilcoxes and Schlegel siblings live in. Still, Ivory creates scenes of a dream-world that Bast wants to live in as if he wants to be in a world where he can happy where Helen would be that person who would help him. Even as the house that is Howards End is a major character in the film as a place of comfort that is a major escape from the real world as Margaret would learn why Ruth cherishes it. Especially as Henry and his family would try to hold on to it for very selfish reasons as it would lead to a dramatic climax that would involve tragedy. Overall, Ivory creates a very captivating yet touching film about pride and connections in the Edwardian period of Britain.
Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts does amazing work with the film‘s lush and gorgeous cinematography from the way some of the film‘s interiors are lit in some of the scenes as well as the exteriors to play into the different moods of the film. Editor Andrew Marcus does fantastic work with the editing with its use of dissolves, abrupt fade-outs, and other stylized cuts to play into some of the drama and suspenseful moments of the film. Production designer Luciana Arrighi, with set decorator Ian Whittaker and art director John Ralph, does brilliant work with the set pieces from the look of the apartment the Schlegel siblings live in to the quaint yet lavish home that is Howards End.
Costume designers Jenny Beaven and John Bright do splendid work with the costumes from the suits that Henry wears to the stylish dresses that the women wear. Hair stylist Carol Hemming does excellent work with the look of the different hairstyles the women had in that period. Sound editor Campbell Askew does nice work with the sound to play into the different atmosphere of the locations including the scenes set in the British countryside. The film’s music by Richard Robbins is truly delightful for its somber yet enchanting orchestral score that includes some piano pieces as well as some music from Percy Grainger to open and close the film as well as a piano piece by Beethoven.
The casting by Celestia Fox is just simple marvelous for the ensemble that is created as it features some notable small roles from Simon Callow as a music lecturer, Jo Kendall as the Schlegel’s maid Annie, Joseph Bennett as Charles’ brother Paul whom Helen was briefly engaged to, Prunella Scales as Schlegel’s Aunt Juley, and Susie Lindeman as Charles’ naïve wife Dolly. Other noteworthy performances include Adrian Ross Magenty as Margaret and Helen’s younger brother Tibby who finds himself having to defend his sisters’ generosity, Jemma Redgrave as the very snobbish and cruel Evie Wilcox, and James Wilby as the eldest Wilcox child Charles whose nosiness and pride would cause trouble for the whole family. Nicola Duffett is wonderful as Leonard’s wife Jacky as this troubled woman trying to do whatever to help them while being suspicious over Leonard’s time with the Schlegels. Vanessa Redgrave is radiant as Ruth Wilcox as an ailing woman who is full of life as she finds a true friend in Margaret and does something that she feels is a good thing.
Samuel West is superb as Leonard Bast as a man trying to find work amidst the adversity he faces where he finds himself becoming close with Helen. Helena Bonham Carter is amazing as Helen Schlegel as a woman that simply wants to help Leonard while becoming suspicious over Henry’s intentions for Margaret as it’s a role that has a lot of bite and wit. Anthony Hopkins is great as Henry Wilcox as a man who prides himself as someone with power as he tries to hold on to his wife’s house only to be impressed by Margaret where he becomes unsure if he’s doing the right thing. Finally, there’s Emma Thompson in a radiant performance as Margaret Schlegel as a woman who deals with her own financial issues while trying to help Leonard and befriend the Wilcoxes where she becomes torn in her devotion to Henry and her family as it’s a powerful performance from Thompson.
Howards End is an exquisite and enchanting film from the Merchant-Ivory team. Thanks to a splendid cast led by Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter, and Vanessa Redgrave along with fantastic technical work, Richard Robbins’ mesmerizing music, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s potent screenplay. It’s a film that isn’t just an exploration into human connections and the sins that forces people to do horrific things but it’s a film that plays into the understanding of humanity and how they can be similar. In the end, Howards End is a spectacular film from James Ivory.
James Ivory Films: The Householder - (The Dehli Way) - Shakespeare Wallah - (The Guru) - Bombay Talkie - (Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of Civilization) - (Savages (1972 film)) - (Autobiography of a Princess) - (The Wild Party) - (Roseland) - (Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie’s Pictures) - (The Five Forty-Eight) - (The Europeans) - (Jane Austen in Manhattan) - (Quartet (1981 film)) - (Heat and Dust) - (The Bostonians) - A Room with a View - Maurice - (Slaves of New York) - (Mr. & Mrs. Bridges) - The Remains of the Day - (Jefferson in Paris) - (Surviving Picasso) - (A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries) - (The Golden Bowl) - (Le Divorce) - (The White Countess) - (The City of Your Final Destination)
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