Howards End (1992)

Howards End (1992)

The crowning achievement of period drama royalty Merchant Ivory Productions, Howards End is a sumptuous yet searing adaptation

The Very Best

8.9

Movie

Japan, UK
English, German
Drama, Romance
1992
JAMES IVORY
Adrian Ross Magenty, Allie Byrne, Anne Lambton
142 min

TLDR

True story: they renamed the Oscar for Best Actress “the Emma Thompson Award” after this.

What it's about

The Schlegels, the Basts, and the Wilcoxes — each from different social classes — become tragically entangled in Edwardian England.

The take

With Howards End, the magic trio of producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala converted yet another turn-of-the-19th-century EM Forster novel into exquisite cinematic form. Ravishingly shot and performed to career-best heights by many of its cast, Howards End loses nothing of the elegance we expect from a period drama, and yet it also feels thoroughly modern. The film charts the tragic entwining of three families: the progressive and intellectual middle-class Schlegel sisters, the much more traditionally minded and wealthier Wilcox family, and the Basts, a down-on-their-luck working-class couple. It’s the liberally minded Schlegels who cross the class divide of 1910 London to bring these two distant social circles so close to each other, but it’s the old-world values of the Wilcoxes that make that meeting a tragic one. Simmering with rich emotion and crackling with class politics, Howards End is the crowning glory of the Merchant Ivory powerhouse and the rare perfect period drama.

What stands out

Howards End converted three of its nine Oscar nods into wins: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Production Design, and Best Actress, courtesy of Emma Thompson’s portrayal of Margaret Schlegel. All three were richly deserved, but the latter especially so: with expert subtlety, Thompson makes Margaret the conflicted and compassionate presence that is central to the film’s exploration of changing class relations. As the elder of the two Schlegel girls, Margaret is required to be more sensible than her hotheaded younger sister (Helena Bonham Carter), a responsibility that tacitly informs her decision to marry the high-minded, middle-aged Henry Wilcox (a superlative Anthony Hopkins), who shares none of her artistic interests or empathetic impulses. These gulfs widen during their marriage as the independent Margaret assumes an increasingly passive role, her well-intentioned self-sacrifice reaching an intensity that is heartbreaking to watch. What happens in the film’s closing scenes — the way Thompson signals that Margaret has reached a breaking point, but never that she has lost her compassion — is the defining grace note of this stunning film.

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