Directed by James Ivory | Written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, adapting the novel by EM Forster | 140 min | (1992)
It’s easy to forget that 25 years ago the period drama was a lively and popular genre. The works of EM Forster, Henry James, and Jane Austen were deeply mined for feature film adaptations. The filmmaking team of director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala delivered some of the finest of these under the Merchant Ivory shingle. And Howards End is an excellent example of their work, an examination of class tension in turn-of-the-century England.
The very wealthy Wilcox family (headed by Ruth and Henry, Vanessa Redgrave and Anthony Hopkins) own a rambling cottage in Shropshire, the Howards End of the title, but also spend time at an enormous home in London. The slightly less-wealthy Schlegels (including Margaret and Helen, Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter) also live in London, but are more interested in the arts and intellectualism than the Wilcoxes. Helen starts a romance with one of the Wilcox scions, and though that doesn’t work out, Ruth and Margaret strike up a friendship, the fact of which impacts both families, the fate of the country cottage, and the life of an impoverished bank clerk, Leonard Bast (Samuel West).
Everything about Howards End works. The cast is perfect—especially Academy Award Best Actress-winner Thompson and the stentorian Hopkins, who would reunite in another stellar Merchant Ivory production, The Remains of the Day. The cinematography is gorgeous, framing exquisite country locations and the moody interiors in the city, and the sets and costumes are stunning. The visuals feel like a Gustave Caillebotte painting come to life. Jhabvala’s adapted screenplay, for which she won an Academy Award, doesn’t put a foot wrong.
Though the reputation of these dramas is of stuffy, repressed characters who bridle beneath corsets, there’s an intensity here, intertwined with the film’s elegance. Universal truths hold sway: Guilt bubbles up unexpectedly, best intentions can cause harm, passion overcomes decorum, and being in tune with nature is a possible avenue to happiness—so long as you have money to eat and put a roof over your head. It’s also frequently laugh-out-loud funny, much more than one might expect.
As good as it ever was, Howards End deserves to be seen on the big screen, a reminder of a sadly departed era of quality filmmaking much more deserving of credit than it gets.
Howards End opens in a restored 4K edition on Friday, October 21 and runs for a week at Park Lane.