The movies that become art-house crowd pleasers generally have one telling aspect in common: They present ”moral” questions in an accessible, easy-to- think-about way. They’re art made user-friendly. Watching a literate trifle like A Room With a View (1986), we root for the innocent young heroine to follow her romantic yearnings, and we giggle at the priggish Victorians who try to press her into a loveless marriage. The movie is preaching to the converted (by now, who doesn’t believe that love matters more than propriety?). Likewise, Europa Europa (1991) tells the bracing true-life story of a young Jew who passes as a member of the Hitler Youth, yet it doesn’t even attempt to enlarge our understanding of what made Nazism so seductive to the Germans. Essentially, the charmed hero outwits a rote collection of killers, fools, and fanatics. These movies become art-house sensations in part because they make it so easy to choose sides.
I bring all this up as a roundabout way of joining in the praise for Howards End (PG), the latest E.M. Forster adaptation from the team of James Ivory (director), Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (screenwriter), and Ismail Merchant (producer), who also collaborated on adapting Forster’s A Room With a View. Their new film, which is about to open around the country, is a glorious success — witty, dark, profound. And yet, like the novel it’s based on, it is at once seductive and supremely elusive, a tale of class barriers in Edwardian England that gently undermines all our conventional art-house prejudices about men and women who’ve been molded by aristocratic privilege.
From its breathtaking opening shot, in which the dreamy matriarch Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave) strolls at twilight through the grounds of Howards End, her beloved country manor, the movie is unabashedly enraptured with the civilized splendor of its characters’ lives. Ivory’s camera roams through mansions and gardens and the magnificent streets of turn-of-the-century London, unveiling an England in which every aspect of existence — conversation, food, travel, nature itself — has been lovingly aestheticized. Howards End captures the moment when this sumptuous world, in which materialism and spirituality are deeply intertwined, is beginning to crack; it is based on hidden social contracts that can no longer be justified. Ivory, as a director, has never achieved the elliptical dramatic force he does here. The vibrant, satin-rich images are charged with emotion.
The story spirals around two families. There are the Wilcoxes — Ruth, her rich, diffident husband, Henry (Anthony Hopkins), and their three rather snotty children. And there are the Schlegels — Helen (Helena Bonham Carter), playful and free-spirited, and Margaret (Emma Thompson), her conservative and kindly older sister, the two of whom enjoy a life of tea parties and quasi- bohemian cultural pursuits from within their posh London townhouse. The families are brought together when the ailing Ruth befriends Margaret. Redgrave isn’t on screen for long, yet her tremulous presence convinces us we’re watching a character who is linked to the soul of England itself. Ruth dies and becomes the film’s catalyst, bringing together the worlds of money (Henry) and intellectual passion (Margaret). In London, the two families keep running into each other, and Margaret, after a few casual meetings, accepts Henry’s rather abrupt offer of marriage.
Forster’s story is driven by the fervor — and sheer folly — of people attempting to ”better” those beneath them. The Schlegels have made a protégé of Leonard Bast (Sam West), a poor but intelligent young clerk who loves poetry. Leonard himself is married to a hapless cockney wench whom he feels duty-bound to look after. When Henry, in an early scene, casually mentions to the Schlegels that the insurance company Leonard works for is about to fail, Leonard ends up quitting his job. Except it’s a mistake: The company doesn’t go under, and Leonard lacks the connections to get another position. None of this matters to Henry, who views his economic inferiors through a catch-22: If you lack opportunity, it must be because you didn’t deserve it in the first place. The job incident turns young Helen into Leonard’s one-woman social crusader, with tragic results.
The film’s moral thrust would seem to grow out of the injustice of Leonard’s plight. Yet what lends Howards End its mysterious, off-center gravity is that the filmmakers, like Forster, are less interested in Leonard than in the world of entitlement that has shut him out. The superb cast brings this world to life. Bonham Carter, whose exquisite, square-faced prettiness suggest a pre-Raphaelite painting come to life, acts with a smoldering directness. Her naive but willful Helen is an idealist who won’t be trapped by what she’s been taught. Hopkins, in a masterful performance, revels in Henry’s slightly dull, straitlaced arrogance, at the same time hinting at the tenderness that draws Margaret. It’s this quality that spurs Henry’s final, weary act of benevolence. Best of all is Emma Thompson, whose face is so delicately reactive that it’s like a kaleidoscope of emotion. As Margaret, a figure of radiant sanity, she makes intelligence itself seem beautiful. By the end, Margaret and Henry emerge as the film’s flawed yet hopeful human connection. The triumph of Howards End is that it doesn’t merely invite us to feel for these characters. With something like grace, it shows us the error and the splendor of their ways.