"Howards End," a film at once civilized and passionate, is named for a house in the English countryside. It has been in the Wilcox family for a long time - or, more properly, in the family of Mrs. Wilcox, who makes it the center of her life and retreats to its peace when the noise of life in London with Mr. Wilcox grows too deafening.
In America, where we change our address as easily as we change our telephone number, the meaning of such a house is harder to understand. We do not often grow up in the same rooms where our grandparents were born. But in a country such as England, until quite recently, many families had such houses in their histories, and "Howards End" is about the passing of the traditionals and humanist values that could flourish in such places.
The story of the house and the people who pass through it is told by E. M. Forster, in the best of his novels and one of the last (after A Passage to India, A Room with a View, Where Angels Fear to Tread and Maurice) to be filmed.
The year is 1910. Mrs. Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave) develops an admiration for Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson), who belongs to a musical family with a British mother and a German father (but not "Germans of the dreadful sort," Forster confides). She finds she can talk to Margaret - she recognizes a spark in the girl that reminds her of herself. When she dies, her family is horrified to discover a scrawled, unsigned coda to her will, leaving the house to Margaret.
They burn the scrap of paper ("Mother couldn't have meant it"), and agree to say nothing about it.
But life has a way of correcting errors. Margaret, who is young and beautiful by our standards but old enough to be on the edge of spinsterhood by the standards of her day, catches the eye of the bereaved Mr. Wilcox, a very rich, shy, abrupt banker played by Anthony Hopkins. He proposes, or more exactly croaks out some tortured syllables which seem to express esteem and desire. She interprets, and accepts. And she comes home to Howards End.
But this is not a melodrama about inheritances. It is a film about values. Other characters are involved, especially Margaret's sister, Helen (Helena Bonham Carter), and the desperately poor and unhappy Mr. Leonard Bast (Sam West), who meets the Schlegels through an incident of a lost umbrella, and becomes the victim of their attempts to help him. Mr. Wilcox, asked for advice on Mr. Bast's job prospects, advises him to leave a thriving company and join one which soon goes bankrupt, and when the girls cry out that poor Mr. Bast is now worse off than he was before, Wilcox replies, not complacently, "The poor are the poor, and one's sorry for them - but there it is." The fiery Helen will not stand for this, and indeed produces poor Mr. Bast at her sister's wedding fete on the lawns of Howards End, where Bast, the leper at the feast, discovers along with everyone else that his slovenly wife knows Mr. Wilcox far better than she should. This development leads to the story's angry outcry against hypocrisy, as Helen denounces her sister and Margaret denounces her husband - not for immorality, but for failing to apply to himself the same standards he would apply to others.
"Howards End" is one of the best novels of the 20th century.
"Howards End" is such a good story, partly because Forster himself was a master storyteller who was particularly gifted at strong endings, partly because the splendid cast embodies the characters so fully that the events actually seem to be happening to them, instead of unfolding from a screenplay.
Emma Thompson is superb in the central role: quiet, ironic, observant, with steel inside. Helena Bonham Carter has never been better than she is here, as the hothead who commits her mind and body to the radical new social ideas of the times. Anthony Hopkins gives a heartbreaking performance as a man who wants to change and wants to love, but finally cannot quite bring himself to break through the hidebound reactionary impulses which protect him from his better nature. And Vanessa Redgrave, as the dying Mrs. Wilcox, casts a spell over the whole movie; if we do not believe in her values, and understand what she sees in Margaret and why she wants her to have the house, we miss the whole point.
What a beautiful film it is: Not an overdecorated "period" adaptation, but a film in which the people move easily through town and country homes and landscapes which frame and define them. The house used as Howards End in the film is the very same house, I am informed, that Forster used as a model in writing his novel. It is easy to imagine standing on the lawn and understanding what such a house could mean. Paul Goodman once wrote, "As an architect draws, men live," by which among other things he possibly meant that good houses inspire good lives. Here is a house that sets such a test that a whole society is challenged.