The effect art can have on one’s psyche is astounding. As I began to watch the Merchant/Ivory film Howards End last night, a film I have seen many times before, I found myself overwhelmed by memories and feelings. Don’t get me wrong, I was not sobbing my way through the opening scenes, but so many thoughts come to mind: the friend I went and saw the movie with in 1992, who I have not seen since probably the late 90s; how this film led me to read the E.M. Forster book and changed my reading life forever, sparking an interest in classics that continues unabated; and of course the inevitable feelings of years gone by. I was much younger in 1992, and Helena Bonham Carter and Emma Thompson also were so young and beautiful in their English way. I fell in love with this movie and with the actors and actresses therein. No movie was better that year, to me.
Howards End tells the story of the Schlegel sisters, the Wilcox family, and Leonard Bast (and Mrs. Bast too, but not as deeply), during the Edwardian period in England. It is gloriously filmed, wonderfully scored, amazingly acted, and the screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is sublime (and won an Oscar that year). How does she come up with Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson) saying to Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins), “Mr. Wilcox, I am demented!” while giving Hopkins what I can only describe as being a coy, nervous, and sexy glance, as if to say that she is flirting but not entirely sure how to do so (Thompson won an Oscar too). I don’t think that line is found in the Forster book, but I could be wrong.
To begin with, Margaret’s younger sister Helen (Bonham Carter) is part of an embarrassing series of events involving the youngest Mr. Wilcox in which they briefly decide to be married. She sends word to her family, and Aunt Juley races to Howards End (the name of Mrs. Wilcox’s house in Shropshire) to represent the family. By the time she arrives the fancy has passed, and Helen must later flee to Germany to recover from the ordeal. Such is the life of the upper-crust British which is so familiar to readers of Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, Henry James, et al. Mrs. Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave) later forms a friendship with Margaret, which is the pivot the remainder of the plot will revolve upon.
Leonard Bast, a clerk of meager circumstances, makes his way into the story after Helen unwittingly steals his umbrella on a rainy day when they have both attended a lecture on music and meaning. He trails along after her trying to get her attention and finally ends up standing sadly with a newspaper over his head waiting to be noticed outside the Schlegel’s fancy home in London. Leonard spends the rest of the movie acting as an outsider and in direct contrast to the wealthy Schlegels and Wilcoxes. This discrepancy between the upper and lower classes in Britain, along with social justice for the poor, are recurring themes in the book and movie.
I need to re-read the book some time soon. For one thing, I cannot remember how Forster portrays Henry Wilcox. Is he a sympathetic character in the book? I wonder because I believe that Anthony Hopkins makes him one despite so many things that he says and does. One of my favorite lines, which if I cock my head just slightly I believe I can hear Donald Trump say, is “The poor are the poor, and one’s sorry for them – but there it is.” It is probably the great vulnerability with which Hopkins portrays Henry during the latter part of the film that endears him so much to me. Hopkins is of course one of our great actors.
I apologize if this post seems to be rambling and only partially discussing the movie Howards End. I suppose for one thing I am trying not to give too many plot details in case any of you out there have not seen it and may want to (and have not read the book either). The blogosphere seems to be made for tangential discussions which began on a more specific subject. This leads me to the topic of: the merits of actors and actresses from the UK and Australia compared to their counterparts in the USA. It seemed to me for so long that if the Oscars for acting were to go to the best every year, an American would never win. However, there is a lot of sentiment amongst academy voting for celebrities to win these awards, so therefore we can rest assured that the Brits & Aussies will not hijack our ceremony too much, but only occasionally steal the spotlight.
Back to the movie. This is a beautiful scene.
Leonard and Helen in a boat on a lake or stream. If this scene is not portrayed exactly like this in the book, then James Ivory filmed it this way only because it was so stunning to watch the two young actors rowing away and then drifting off under some tree limbs while beautiful music is playing. Cinema can be so incomparable to other forms of media in so many ways. Looking at this photo brings me to the pastoral nature of the film. Mrs. Wilcox was in love with her house (Howards End), but she was just as infatuated with the meadows and the fields, and the tree with the pigs teeth stuck into it. She passes on that pastoral love to Margaret. Leonard has a recurring daydream in which he walks through fields of flowers; in stark contrast to his daily life living in one of the poorer sections of London. The Schlegels are having their own house torn down and must find another place to live. The message all of this sends is that the city is dirty, destructive, unsafe, and the country is clean, nurturing, and helps the characters to become better versions of themselves.
Perhaps not so much in the case of Charles Wilcox.
My mind keeps coming back to (at least) two distinct scenes that are filmed in an uncommon way. The first is the restaurant scene in which Margaret mentions her dementedness to Henry, and the second is the scene following Evie’s wedding where the two of them are alone discussing what has transpired at the reception. The first is a joyously flirtatious scene, and the second is upset, discussion, and forgiveness (a little heavier). Both show the principals making a statement, then the director will fade them out, then bring them back into the same scene but forwarded to new positions, and another mini scene within a scene occurs. In each case this is done to great effect until the scene ends. I’m not sure that I have been able to correctly explain the technique, but I found it to be unique enough to comment on. A way of making a scene move timewise more quickly than it would in real time.
E.M. Forster wrote the phrase Only Connect as an epigraph to his novel, and it of course applies to the movie as well. The story is all about people connecting, trying to, having trouble being able to, and showing the difficulties involved depending on personality and/or position in society. While the Schlegels and Wilcoxes might both be well off, they are very different in character and interaction. Margaret and Henry can both be seen as quite shy, but in different ways and with regard to situation. Margaret was a too-old-to-marry spinster and very unsure of herself when Henry romanced her, but she could nonetheless look him directly in the eye and respond. Henry runs a company with apparent force and determination, but in intimate moments he retreats into a pathetic shell of himself. Helen and Charles are forces of nature that their families try to control. Along with poor Leonard, all of these disparate personalities must in some way connect with each other, try as some might not to.
Howards End is to me the best of what I refer to as “English costume dramas”; period pieces which usually depict interpretations of 19th century novels. I am wary of new ones. Ismail Merchant and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala are gone, and James Ivory is in his late 80s and probably retired at this point. I must rely on newer generations of filmmakers to revisit the magic of this type of movie for me, which is hard to reproduce.
—Stu Moore is a friend of the proprietor of this blog. If not lolling in his university office cavalierly responding to outside stimuli, he can often be found walking a dog, or reading a book.