Old 06-26-2009, 05:11 PM
James Ivory's Howards End

Howards End (1992)

James Ivory's "Howards End" almost feels as though it takes place in a fantasy world. It is a tale of class, wealth, power, and love that doesn't pretend to be something it's not. Everything in the world of the rich is beautiful, upscale, with everyone having impeccable manners. What we have here is what happens when that perfect world is shaken up a bit.

Based on the novel by E. M. Forster, the film starts off as we meet the two main families of the story; the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels. As the film opens Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham Carter) is alerting her sister, Meg (Emma Thomson), of her intention to marry Paul Wilcox (Joseph Bennett). This is quickly dissolved as Helen and Paul feel it would be a bad idea. Some time passes and the two families find themselves living across the street from one another. Meg quickly becomes good friends with Mrs. Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave) who keeps wanting to show Meg her country house, Howards End.

Upon her death, Mrs. Wilcox scribbles down on a piece of paper that she wishes for Howards End to be bequeathed to Meg. Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins), widower of Mrs. Wilcox, finds this unacceptable and disregards the note. He meets with Meg several more times and learns of her family's plight; they are to be turned out of their house when their lease expires. Eventually, Henry asks Meg to be his wife. She accepts.

The trouble begins however when a friend of the Schlegels, Leonard Bast (Samuel West), takes some advice that Henry gave to the Schlegels saying that he should leave his job at a bank because they were probably about to go out of business. It turns out that, after Leonard leaves his position at the bank, it becomes very successful, leaving Leonard without a job and finding it very difficult to get another. Helen is outraged that Meg would marry someone who gave such advice and won't help Leonard out after causing such trouble. This causes a confrontation that leads to another truth being uncovered.

That took three paragraphs to even begin to explain the plot but I at least wanted to get to the part where the plot begins to truly unfold. This also leads to what I felt was a drawback for the film, which, while I enjoyed it, it made it feel as though the events did not transition very well, giving it the feeling of one thing happening after another in order to keep the story going.

I accepted the events because they were perfectly logical, but it just seemed as though the movie didn't know what it really wanted to be about because it kept shifting from one even to the next. At first, we think it's going to be about the relationship between Meg and Mrs. Wilcox, but shortly after, Mrs. Wilcox dies. We are then led to believe it is going to be about the house, Howards End, but it is quickly changed to a sudden engagement between Meg and Henry.

I must say, however, that I did enjoy that development as it took me completely by surprise and brought up the most questions such as: does she really love him, or is she merely doing this for the money, guaranteeing her family's financial future (plus a roof over their heads)? These questions are never really addressed though we can constantly feel a kind of tension between the two, especially during the second half of the film.

From here, the film eventually moves into its climax, bringing up questions of class and privilege, right and wrong, and even develops into an unwanted avenging. The ending itself is also logical, but did seem a little rushed. This jumping from event to event is what kept me from getting into the film as much as I wanted to, but again, I still ended up enjoying watching the events unfold.

The film is beautifully shot with Oscar-nominated direction from James Ivory and Oscar-nominated cinematography from Tony Pierce-Roberts. Speaking of Oscars, Emma Thomson won Best Actress of the year for her amazing portrayal of Meg Schlegel. She brings a great power and strong-will to her character. The fact that Thompson makes it look so easy is a tribute to her brilliant acting skills. Not only that, but it also takes tremendous skill to outshine Anthony Hopkins like she does.

Also standing out from the cast is Helena Bonham Carter. This was one of her much earlier roles, way before "Fight Club" and multiple collaborations with her future fiancÚ, Tim Burton. She gives the character of Helen a great sense of innocence at first, but then unleashes a full range of emotions from love, contempt, and confusion to an almost eerie "acceptance."

This is the kind of film for people who simply love gorgeous looking films (the art direction/set decoration also won an Oscar), but also for those who enjoy an intriguing story on top of it (like yours truly). The story here is engaging enough to recommend as it kept me guessing as to how things were going to resolve. The ending was quite unexpected, and while it did feel a little random, at least it wasn't something that could be easily noticed from a mile away; that is, assuming you haven't read the book. 3/4 stars.
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