E. M. Forster's passionate, civilized novel of a house and its residents is one of the 20th century's best. Howard's End is an English country house that's belonged to Mrs. Wilcox's (Redgrave) family for generations; she retreats to it when life in 1910 London is too much. Americans rarely grow up in the same homes our grandparents, but until recently in England, many people did, and this movie is about human values that flourished in such homes.
Mrs. Wilcox is fond of Margaret Schlegel (Thompson), because she can talk to her; the young woman reminds her of herself. When Mrs. Wilcox dies, her family is horrified to find a scrawled codicil leaving Margaret Howard's End. "Mother couldn't mean it," they concur, then burn the paper, and agree not to mention it. Margaret, although a spinster, is beautiful; catching the eye of bereaved Mr. Wilcox (Hopkins), a rich, shy banker, she accepts his esteem and desire, marries him, and goes home to Howard's End.
But the film's focus is values. Desperate, poor, unhappy Leonard Bast (West) meets the Schlegels, who try to help him. Wilcox advises him to quit one thriving firm to join another, which soon goes under. When his girls cry that Bast is now worse off, Wilcox retorts, "The poor are poor; one's sorry for them, but there it is." Helen won't stand for that, and invites Bast to her sister's wedding feast at Howard's End, where he discovers, as does everyone else, that his slovenly wife knows Mr. Wilcox better than she should, which begins an outcry against hypocrisy. Helen denounces her sister, who scolds her husband, for not applying to themselves their standards for other people.
Merchant, Jhabvala, and Ivory specialize in bringing great novels to the screen ("A Room with a View," "The Bostonians," "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge"). Forster was a master storyteller, and the splendid cast embodies his characters so fully that events seem to happen to them. Thompson is superb; Carter is at her best as a hothead who commits herself to radical new social ideas. Hopkins gives a touching performance as a man who can't quite break through his reactionary impulses. Redgrave as Mrs. Wilcox casts a spell over the whole movie; if we don't know what she sees in Margaret, or why she wants her to have the house, we miss the whole point. Good houses inspire good lives. Here's one that helps its residents challenge a whole society.
James Ivory, based on the novel by E.M. Forster
James Ivory, Ismial Merchant, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, based on the novel by E.
Emma thompson, Helena Bonham-Carter, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthoy Hopkins, Sam West
E.M. Forester, Merchant-Ivory
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