By 1992, director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant had already firmly established their brand name — classy literary pictures under the banner Merchant-Ivory — when they released their 20th movie, Howards End. But this movie was different. The adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel would not only become their biggest hit and most Oscar-nominated movie, but also quell the naysayers who regarded Merchant-Ivory as nothing more than tame period piece porn for the bourgeois.
Howards End is lush and gorgeous to look at, but underneath that surface is also a tough, challenging drama about class and family betrayal. Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter star as idealistic, bohemian sisters whose worldviews shift as each become involved with social circle above and beneath them. The title refers to a crucial piece of real estate, which comes to symbolize much more than just a pretty house.
In anticipation of next year’s 25th anniversary of the film, Cohen Media Group is releasing a new 4K restoration of Howards End into theaters this summer, opening in New York on Aug. 26 and Los Angeles on Sept. 2. The above trailer (and poster, below) are fantastic evidence of the movie’s impeccable aesthetic — and of the stellar, subtle acting on display. Thompson won the lead actress Oscar for her role as the older sister and Vanessa Redgrave was nominated for her brief, crucial supporting performance. But equally fine in the film, especially on a second or third viewing, is Bonham Carter as the younger sister, whose good intentions rip holes in the social mores of 1910 England.
Bonham Carter chatted with EW about making the film and about a couple ironic coincidences which tightly weaves the fictional story of Howards End with her own life.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Last month, when this restored version of Howards End screened at the Cannes Film Festival, Vanessa Redgrave watched it and said she wouldn’t change a single thing about it.
HELENA BONHAM CARTER: Oh, that’s wonderful. I wish I’d been there. James [Ivory] left me a lovely message. But I’m very critical. Whenever I watch myself I think, I’ve got to give up and find something else to do, some other way of earning my living.
But what are your memories from when you watched it almost 25 years ago?
I loved the film. Luckily I wasn’t in every scene of it. It’s difficult to judge a film you’ve been in, but Howards End is my favorite Forster novel. It was one of the privileges and bonus of being in the film — that I was getting paid to read it.
The BBC is reportedly working on a miniseries version. You could easily do a four or six hour version of the novel, but this movie is two hours and change. And still, it’s a very hard novel to describe in 25 words or less.
Oh, it’s so hard, isn’t it? I wish I’d reread it just now. Why didn’t I do my homework for this? Well, I think it’s about legacy and inheritance, in all forms. It’s such a deeply soul-satisfying narrative. It’s about pain and loss but it’s very soothing. And then Forster is so weirdly dramatic, as well. Like Leonard Bast [Samuel West] dying from underneath a collapsed bookcase [laughs]. I must say that’s a bit random.
I’ve heard the story of how you got the part. You were at a fancy Hollywood party and James Ivory, who’d already directed you a few years earlier in A Room With a View, he looked at you —
Yep. And he said, “I was wondering, Little Thing, what you would look like pregnant?”
That’s an interesting observation.
He’s always very surprising in his comments. He’s startlingly unexpected with what he comes up with sometimes. He is extraordinary, can I just say? He just turned 88 and he’s more chatty and more exuberant and more excitable, frankly, now than when I first met him.
What was the “Little Thing” all about?
That came from A Room With A View. My character Lucy Honeychurch is called that at one point. But that’s how I found out that he had me in mind for this part.
It’s neat to look at what you’d done in your career up to that point: A Room With a View and Lady Jane and you played Ophelia in the Mel Gibson Hamlet. Luminous young women. But your Howards End role is much more of a character actress part.
I know. That’s why I loved it.
She’s not the ingénue role. Do you think that changed your career course a little bit?
I always felt like she was more of a match for me. I always felt more comfortable in her skin than the previous romantic parts that had come my way. I remember feeling quite liberated — and quite funny, because she’s a fanatic. Also I loved her sense of motion. In the novel, Forster uses verbs like “she flung herself into the room.” Everything was so vivid. She went with her heart before her head.
Has the role stuck with you in some meaningful ways?
Well, it’s funny. A few years after Howards End I was shooting a Woody Allen film [Mighty Aphrodite] in Sicily and I came back and at the time my dad was going through the letters of my grandmother, Violet Asquith. She would have been the same age as my character in Howards End at the same time. She was very political and very liberal, but passionately so, and very forthright and outspoken. And she was a friend of E.M. Forster and she read Howards End. And my dad was going through my granny’s letters and found a postcard in which she wrote about having just read Howards End in this charming monastery town in Sicily. And I got chills — I just got chills again — because the hotel she had been visiting in 1912 was the same hotel I’d just been staying at while making the Woody Allen film.
And then, also, me and Tim [Burton, her ex-partner] bought a house, which doesn’t look dissimilar from Howards End. And when we bought it we knew that this was the same house that my grandmother lived in, but they had to sell it because they didn’t have any money. And we brought it back into the family.
Wow, you’re almost giving away the ending of Howards End.
Exactly. It was sort of meant to be. I remember my dad always going on about some house. And when my son, at age 3, entered into this house when we bought it, he was the same age as my dad when he had to leave it.
All those echoes. This is exactly what Forster was writing about.
Right, transcending generations. And how we might lose things, but through children and legacy there can be a continuity and life goes on. It’s bizarre, but I can tell you it’s very true — a book can be absorbed into one’s life. And it has its own themes that have come into my life for real.