(UK 1992 140m) DVD1/2
p Ismail Merchant d James Ivory w Ruth Prawer Jhabvala novel E.M.Forster ph Tony Pierce-Roberts ed Andrew Marcus m Richard Robbins art Luciana Arrighi, John Ralph cos Jenny Beavan, John Bright
Anthony Hopkins (Henry Wilcox), Emma Thompson (Margaret Schlegel), Helena Bonham Carter (Helen Schlegel), Vanessa Redgrave (Ruth Wilcox), Samuel West (Leonard Bast), James Wilby (Charles Wilcox), Joseph Bennett (Paul Wilcox), Jemma Redgrave (Evie Wilcox), Nicola Duffett (Jacky Bast), Prunella Scales (Aunt Juley), Adrian Ross Magenty (Tibby Schlegel), Jo Kendall (Annie), Simon Callow (Lecturer),
What will the film historians of the future make of the films of Ismael Merchant and James Ivory? Though I’d like to think otherwise, I think most ‘hip’ critics will dismiss them as an archaic form of prestige cinema, films not worth preserving from a time, cinematically speaking, when British cinema was trying to find a voice. Their films were old-fashioned, but was that necessarily a bad thing? Certainly some of their films don’t work, few could find anything too interesting in the likes of The Golden Bowl, Jefferson in Paris or Surviving Picasso, and despite The Remains of the Day, it’s for their E.M.Forster triptych that they are best remembered, and while A Room With a View and Maurice may be little better than prettified, well-acted large screen versions of TV costume dramas, Howards End transcends that. The first of their films to be made on the widescreen, and certainly the best cast film they ever made, it seems quintessential cinema even when at times it verges on the negation of it. It deserves any accolades of greatness given to it.
Helen Schlegel becomes infatuated with young Paul Wilcox and spends a weekend with his family at the country retreat of Howards End. After a night of passion, things cool in the morning and both families try to hush it up. However, when Paul’s elder brother Charles is married, the Wilcox family unwittingly rent the house over the way from the Schlegel family home. Only when Paul has gone to Africa and Helen goes to Germany, does Helen’s more discreet elder sister, Margaret, go across to visit Mrs Wilcox, left alone for a few weeks by her family, and they become close friends, during which time Margaret becomes aware that Mrs Wilcox is terminally ill.
Forster is not the easiest author to adapt to the screen as so much is left unsaid. Even David Lean came unstuck with A Passage to India, very much an old man’s final hurrah, solid, good looking, well-acted but underwhelming. Howards End, on the other hand, gives one pause for thought, allows the viewer to interpret for themselves the real power behind the story (the plot itself was always of secondary import to Forster, a Fabian who truly was a social commentator). He somehow always seemed distanced from his protagonists, especially the privileged ones depicted here.
Ivory is admittedly helped by a truly superb adaptation from regular collaborator Jhabvala, which even isn’t afraid to mix in a little light comedy – one thinks particularly of a mix up over an umbrella set to the 3rd movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony – and a real sense of the doomed romantic. There’s also a distinct lyrical beauty to Pierce-Roberts’ camerawork that was never seen again, with one sequence where Leonard Bast wanders through the bluebells at dawn minutes prior to his death which is breathtakingly symbolic to behold, like his own glimpse of Elysium at the point of reaching it. On the subject of which, while Thompson and Hopkins got all the accolades, and Bonham Carter gave the first real glimpse of the talent that would be capable of The Wings of the Dove and Fight Club, somehow it’s West’s Bast you recall most, one of literature’s great losers, a victim of both society and lady luck. As if to honour Forster’s wishes, the film really does connect, both emotionally and intellectually, refusing to paint characters black or white, but various shades of grey, a balancing act achieved and counter-pointed through the contrast between the grey streets of rainy London and the expansive vibrant colour of the meadows near the eponymous house.