Sunday, November 15, 2009

Howards End

In the accompanying booklet for Criterion's new Blu-Ray for Howards End, Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan bemoans how time has forgotten the movie, which was wildly acclaimed and received nine Oscar nominations (and two wins) upon release, has now faded into a sort of obscurity. I confess that I myself never heard of it until Criterion announced it some months ago. Turan calls it the apex of "a cerain kind of filmmaking, a landmark example of movies of passion, taste and sensitivity that honestly touch every emotion." Indeed, this deceptively clichéd story of British class warfare -- itself a genre that has largely been explored top to bottom in romance, period drama, verité, even comedy -- weaves such a rich tapestry of allegory and visual splendor that it commands our attention from the start.

The film, tightly adapted from E.M. Forster's novel, centers on the titular house, a large country estate that proves hugely important in the lives of three families. It is the first of many symbols in a script made entirely of them, clearly representing the quaint, idyllic perception of the "Britishness" of Britain. It is an august château, made of strong brick with interiors of rich, strong wood, with windows that look out upon fields of almost impossible green.

Through a series of misunderstandings, the Schlegels, a middle-class family of bourgeois intellectuals, find themselves connected to this symbol of rural tradition: the young, brash Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) gets engaged to the youngest son of the house's owners, the Wilcoxes, but the two break it off the next day. To sort out the embarrassment, Helen's older sister Margaret (Emma Thompson) visits the Wilcoxes in their London townhouse several months later and enters into an unlikely friendship with Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave in a minor but vital role), the matriarch of the Wilcox family. Compared to the progressive, outspoken Margaret, Ruth is hopelessly old-fashioned; she even expresses an opposition to women's suffrage. Yet Ruth sees something in Margaret, and Ruth spends many of her final days with her new friend rather than family.

Ruth's death serves as the catalyst for the film's action; in her will, she leaves Howards End, a house that's already taken on a sort of mythical quality as it's only been alluded to thus far, to Meg. The Wilcoxes are furious. They only let the house themselves, but that doesn't mean that someone can just move in and stay. Henry (Anthony Hopkins), the husband, burns the will, but he feels a tinge of guilt for his actions. When he visits the Schlegels, Margaret informs him that they can no longer afford their London house, and Henry offers to help them. Eventually, he asks for Meg's hand in marriage, albeit in a hilariously stiff fashion, standing awkwardly at the top of a staircase trying valiantly to put forward a romantic treatise without betraying any of those plebeian weaknesses known as emotions: "Do you think you can be induced to share?" he asks, and Margaret immediately picks up on what he's really asking and accepts with a similar sense of elite detachment.

With this arrangement, the Schlegels find themselves in the center of the class struggle that emerged in the Edwardian era of the early 1900s. Margaret marries Henry and her personality is slowly absorbed into the rigidity of the Wilcoxes, representatives of the new wealth of industrialism and the successors of the old aristocracy. Their greed is plain-faced and grotesque; Charles, the eldest son, is vacuous and feckless, traits that exist also in his wife Dolly. When they discover Ruth's will, Dolly is as hysterical as the "real" Wilcoxes, and she chirps in her airheaded voice, "It's only in pencil! Pencil doesn't count!" The children react to the news of their father's engagement to someone less prosperous than they (though we never see any of the kids do anything approximating work) as if their father admitted that he'd killed Ruth.

On the other end of the spectrum, the impulsive Helen takes up the charge of the Basts, a couple initially set in the lower-middle class range who slide down due to misfortunes. Helen meets Leonard (Samuel West) when she carelessly grabs his umbrella upon leaving a music recital, leading to one of the most beautiful, wittiest and revealing scenes of the film: Helen, rash and impatient, brushes up with the poor (in this case by using the ratty old umbrella) without having to suffer any consequences, while the constantly put-out Leonard must traipse through the rain after yet another of his meager possessions is snatched away by someone rich -- it also suggests that even the middle class who wishes to help the less fortunate can be just as harmful in their own way. Nevertheless, Helen and Margaret are taken with Leonard's intelligence and his plight, and they invite him over on occasion for conversation and, one suspects, as a sort of social experiment. Henry gives the Schlegel sisters an inside tip that the bank Leonard works for is about to shutter, so Leonard quits, only for the company to turn record profits. Soon, his new employers fire him in a staff reduction, and the Basts are plunged into starvation.

This happens as Magaret is adapting her personality to fit with her new social status, so when Helen brings the Basts to the wedding attempting to wring some sort of repayment from Henry for ruining this couple, Meg shoos her sister and her "protégés" away forcefully. Before they can leave, though, a drunken Mrs. Bast recognizes Henry, and we learn that he had an affair with her some years ago when she had to prostitute herself for a time. Margaret feels shame for her deceased, cuckqueaned friend, yet she forgives her husband freely.

The shifting paradigm of the Schlegels' social existence reshapes the family and creates rifts between the sisters, yet this swirling torrent of emotion and uncertainty is restrained marvelously by Carter and Thompson. At the time of shooting, both Carter and Thompson were known but hardly household names: Carter had starred in another of Merchant Ivory's Forster adaptations, A Room With a View (as well as a cameo in Maurice), and Thompson had appeared with then-husband Kenneth Branagh in Henry V and Dead Again. Yet both display prominently the aspects that won them international attention, and both give a masterclass here on the amount of emotional weight the eyes can carry. Carter exhibits her off-beat sensuality through body language and simply by speaking her mind when everyone else shoves all of their impulses into their upper lips.

It is Thompson, though, who walks away with the movie. Margaret has always been more measured than her sister, and she largely suppresses her liberal politics for the sake of polite conversation with Ruth and, later, out of bridal expectation with Henry. Yet where Carter can use her entire body to display her passions, Thompson communicates hers through her deeply expressive eyes. Turan calls Thompson "an actress who can break your heart just by widening her eyes," just about the perfect summation of her power; Margaret is not wholly unhappy in her marriage, but the emergence of Henry's two-faced, callous nature along with the general abhorrence of the Wilcox clan bury any sense of independence until only her eyes betray her true feelings.

At last she has her moment to unleash all the pent-up emotion, when Helen returns from Germany pregnant with Leonard's child. Henry is outraged, refuses to allow Helen to stay at Howards End even for a night and demands to know who "seduced" her so that he might be punished. Margaret cannot contain herself: "Will you forgive her, as you were once forgiven?" and this sudden bluntness could move mountains. Margaret, whom we met as a seemingly flighty young woman and later became a model Edwardian wife, proves her wisdom with this shocking denouncement of Henry's hypocrisy.

When Margaret first came to Howards End, the housekeeper breathlessly noted that she walked around the place just like Mrs. Wilcox, absorbing its idyllic beauty and ethereal grace. By the film's end, she has completely replaced Ruth as not only the head of Howards End but, symbolically, the leader of the new England, a liberal who shall use the wealth of industrialism (Henry) to aid the poor and the future generations. A simplistic vision of a future utopia, perhaps, but a hopeful one, and one that certainly seems popular as Margaret walks around her new kingdom.

Howards End combines all the best aspects of what one might consider "English" filmmaking, from its perfect casting to art design so meticulously recreated that it seems perfectly natural. Period dramas tend to be pretty but vacuous, with the amount of effort ceasing once an attractive woman has been placed into a corset and then into a mansion or palace; how strange, then, that the two period pieces that have struck me as tangible and realistic lately are this film and Bright Star, two movies that feature a particular set as a matter of paramount importance. Yet the chief appeal of Howards End, beyond its design or even its acting, is its lasting relevance to the world. When Helen first approaches Henry with news of the Basts' misfortune, Henry waves her off. "The poor are the poor; one is sorry for them, but there it is." How often have we heard a more gently phrased version of this, delivered with the same hypocrisy and two-faced greed, in the current health care debate?

-Henry refuses to accept any blame for encouraging Leonard to quit; "The poor are the poor," he flatly states, "One is sorry for them, but there it is."; reflects health care debate

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