Dir. James Ivory. Starring Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Anthony Hopkins
“I pity you from the bottom of my heart,” Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave) tells Margaret (Thompson) upon hearing that her recent companion will lose her home in a matter of months. It is the place where she and her siblings were born, and it will be torn down and replaced with a newer, more expensive set of flats. It’s an old-fashioned way of expressing Ruth’s sympathy, and in her short time on the screen her old-fashioned ways are put on display over and over again. Send the mothers of soldiers out as diplomats, she tells a party of younger people at luncheon, and war will end; she marvels lovingly at the pig’s teeth buried into the trunk of a chestnut at Howards End because the locals believe it will cure a toothache; she is amazed at the possibilities of making a list for Christmas shopping. But the word “pity” is tremendously important in Howards End, probably the most important word in the entire film, because pity is a concept with teeth stuck in it. Ruth pities Margaret. Margaret pities Helen (Carter). Helen pities Leonard Bast (Samuel West). Leonard pities Jacky (Nicola Duffat). Hovering above all of them is Ruth’s husband and later Margaret’s, the brittle and dodgy businessman, Henry (Hopkins); it is difficult to wrench the pity out of him, but it comes soon enough. Pity does not do anyone much good in the film. It sends people Helen into histrionic fits, or it dampens Margaret’s previously irrepressible cheer, or it makes Jacky a living farce, or it shatters Leonard. There are good intentions floating like motes of dust in a beam of afternoon light, and they are every bit as hard to catch.
Howards End lacks the sledgehammer power of The Remains of the Day, and it’s certainly less fun than A Room with a View. Where it makes its home is in the margins of life, highlighting the slimmest slivers which are the difference between wretchedness and bliss. Helen, careless, picks up Leonard’s umbrella at a lecture about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. (Simon Callow’s cameo is, as one might expect, spot on.) Margaret gives Leonard her card so he might return to their home for tea sometime, and he chooses to use it as a bookmark around his quick-fingered wife. Without reference or thoughtfulness, Henry gives a business tip to the Schlegels which they turn over to Leonard. The Schlegels keep a sword belonging to their father. How changed our lives would be, the movie understands, if the sun had shone on one day rather than another, or if we had not run into an acquaintance after a party. What makes Howards End especially tragic is the insistence of the characters on believing that such minuscule connections bestow responsibility. A single umbrella absconded with ultimately means a child for Helen, and almost all of the intervening events make the child inevitable rather than random. The doom of Tess is less encompassing in Howards End, but both are built from the same model. Angel Clare can try to deny his responsibility to Tess just as much as Henry Wilcox can dismiss the poor in two sentences, but that does not make them immune.
The most compelling result of this marginal focus is on the impotence of the middle-class. Margaret punches up, so to speak, and becomes intimately involved with the Wilcox family first through Ruth and then through Henry. After a dalliance with Paul Wilcox (Joseph Bennett), a son who spends the vast majority of the film in Nigeria (offscreen, that is – this movie was not expensive to make), Helen decides to shift her focus elsewhere; an engagement that doesn’t last the night is what puts the families at really close quarters for the first time. Ruth is too far gone for Margaret to change in any meaningful respect, nor does it seem likely that Margaret would try to create that sort of influence even if she could. Ruth, whose quiet wanderings in the cool blue dark of the grounds constitute the movie’s opening credits, looks in on the tungsten interiors of the house she loves while everyone else gathers around a table; she is very much outside the life of her husband, who loves London and runs a major import house. The replacement in the Wilcox house of Ruth by Margaret is strange and sudden, even in the proposal that Margaret won’t let Henry get more than three words into. Henry’s awful children are slightly flummoxed (though this is not entirely what makes them awful). And almost immediately, the intellectual, debating life that Margaret lived, happy and wry and informal, becomes the dry life of the wife of a capitalist. Even before her own wedding, she sides with Henry instead of Helen. (Helen is in high dudgeon in her support of the Basts, arguing that Henry must do something to help Leonard, whose circumstances can be traced, however sinuously, back to Henry. His advice to the Schlegels was that if they knew someone at Leonard’s firm, they should advise him to leave, for the firm could not last the year; when Leonard leaves, his firm is the beneficiary of a minor miracle and he is fired as the first one in at the new firm, which was forced to downsize.) You must let me handle this in my own way, Margaret says, chiding Helen for dramatically appearing at the reception for Henry’s daughter’s wedding; more than that, Margaret says, “You have a perverted notion of philanthropy.” All this happens while Helen’s perverted notions of philanthropy include sexual comfort for Leonard, whose own noblesse oblige landed him in a loveless marriage with Jacky. For all of Margaret’s winsome appeals to Henry, only the conviction of Henry’s son Charles (James Wilby) for manslaughter opens his eyes. For all of Helen’s pity for Leonard, all she has to show for it is a child born out of wedlock and a crushing sense that she should have done more for him and his wife…of course, what more she does for Leonard she never does offer to Jacky, who is the true victim of the film. Leonard is struck with a sword and is killed by the ever symbolic bookshelf falling on him; Jacky’s great humiliation is that she gets drunk at a wedding she wasn’t invited to and gets told off by Charles.
Howards End is a minor masterpiece in terms of its technical achievement, and although it is eclipsed by both The Remains of the Day and The Age of Innocence, both of which came out the year after, it’s difficult to find any serious flaw in execution. Tony Pierce-Roberts’ photography is unpretentious and lovely, not above using “light comes in through a window” but loath to put that light in a modern, blue-green setting for contrast. A combination of that photography and sound makes the sub-railroad flat of the Basts appear to be on a train often as not, which speaks to how rootless they are. The movie won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Art Direction, and its costumes lost to the showier fare of Dracula; its music is as varied as its tones, sometimes lighthearted and fun, occasionally dramatic and sad, and, of course, orbiting around Beethoven’s Fifth. Central to any of the Merchant and Ivory films is the screenplay from Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who won her own well-deserved Oscar for her adaptation of Forster. There is a lovely synthesis of acting and writing in this movie. One can see the “Ha ha” on the page for Hopkins, who turns it into his barking and dry dismissal of an awkward moment, who puts that “Ha ha” somewhere into his shoulders as well; Thompson smiles with warmth in the beginning of the movie before that turns into a smile for acceptance, and her words go from “fun older sister” to “stern mom” in expression as well as in writing.
For as much down-to-earth talk as there is in this movie, Ruth’s ethereal reminiscences are the most memorable element. Redgrave plays Ruth, who is in the final stages of an illness for most of her time in the film, as someone who is already halfway in the ground. Even in her hat and fine clothes, her eyes never seem focused on anything in particular; her voice is soft and occasionally croaky. She is emotional at unpredictable times, or flighty after seeming to be perfectly sensible. She and Margaret get as far as buying tickets to see Howards End together, but run into Henry at the station and see their sojourn cut short. It is a characteristic moment for Henry, who takes charge of the situation in his practical way, and for Margaret as well, standing a little discombobulated on the platform. More than that, though, is the way that Ruth’s life is summed up in this exchange in her last days. The magic she ascribes to Howards End, the place of her birth and alas, not of her death, is striking and endearing all at once. It is just like her to see that last peek snuffed out.