If this film were a cake it would be a grand one – rich, sumptuous, oh-so-filling and with numerous tiers. The top layer would have just-a-bit-too-much icing and would be just-a-bit-too-sweet. The icing would have barely made it to the bottom tier. Yet somehow there’d be a beauty in this unbalance, a knowingness, yet an impossibility of doing anything to remedy it. What could have been just an ordinary cake, just like all the others, instead has something which makes it…a marvel.
Howard’s End is an understated spectacle that, through some truly stunning photography, finds the extra in the ordinary. There’s much to be admired in this spell-binding and enrapturing examination of the nature of aspiration. At its centre is a collision course of social classes that was the Edwardian Era as we are party to a saga of changing fates and changing times.
The Schlegel sisters Margaret (Thompson) and Helen (Bonham Carter) live a life that is not so typical for an Edwardian. Intelligent, cultured and living a life with little need for concern or worry. Their paths cross with the Wilcox family, a prosperous but rather conventional family of which Henry (Hopkins) is patriarch. His wife Evie (Redgrave) and Margaret have a brief but firm friendship, leading the former to bestow her beloved estate ‘Howard’s End’ to the later upon her death from illness. Mr Wilcox thwarts this bequest, destroying all evidence and hoping that Margaret will never find out. All the while young sister Helen is busying herself with helping unhappily married and desperately poor clerk Leonard Bast (West), calling upon Mr Wilcox to help in the process. In the following months and years, the lives of all three parties will continue to meet with profound consequences.
What sets Howard’s End apart from a substantial portion of period drama fair is its characterisation. Although they may feel like idealised people they still feel like people nonetheless. They seem to breathe, move and live. They have thoughts and feelings, likes and interests. They have a spark that seems to transcend their archetype. Both Schlegel sisters personify this. They seem beyond their time, but in a way that isn’t anachronistic. They’re immensely likeable, even if you don’t always agree with their actions, your support of them remains unwavering and loyal. They are living a life that is firmly fixed in its time period yet has a universality to it that allow the events that play out to seem decidedly modern. The omnipresent concerns over estate, finances, employment, love, domesticity and freedom – all interject in a manner that create a story that could have, with a bit of tweaking been written more recently than the 1910 publication of R.M Forester’s original text. They feel like real people who inhabit a real world.
This is only capable of happening due to the most perfect of unions – of impeccable settings and lavish costumes, exquisite locations and regularly breath-taking cinematography, evocative score and sublime dialogue – coming together to create something well and truly sublime. So successful a union that it manages to turn a running time of 141 minutes into something more akin to a day trip, a journey into a time gone by and in which we can remain a semi-passive observer. We sit behind the lens, watching events play out whilst being invested to comfortable extent, waiting for the causes to have their effects. We get to be enchanted and taken away for nearly two and a half hours to a lifetime we never lived, yet briefly get to experience within the safe parameters set by Merchant and Ivory. They’re fewer more delightful ways to spend that amount of time.
- Dir: James Ivory
- Scr: E.M. Forster (novel) Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (screenplay)
- Cast: Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter, Joseph Bennett, Emma Thompson, Prunella Scales, Adrian Ross Magenty, Anthony Hopkins, James Wilby, Jemma Redgrave, Samuel West.
- Prd: Ismail Merchant
- DOP: Tony Pierce-Roberts
- Music: Richard Robbins
- Country: UK
- Year: 1992
- Run time: 142 minutes
Howard’s End will be back on the big
screen this summer, released by the BFI in cinemas UK-wide on 28th July.