The Merchant-Ivory team, responsible for "A Room With a View," among others, strikes gold again with "Howards End," another terrific ensemble drama, filled with irony and unexpected twists and turns. Like "Room," it is based on an E.M. Forster novel.
Set in the early part of the century, "Howards End" focuses on three families the Schlegels, the Wilcoxes and the Basts whose intertwined relationships affect one another in surprising ways.
The first character to seriously come to our attention, in a pre-credits sequence, is Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham Carter), who has a brief romance with a member of the upper-crust Wilcox family, then mistakes his advances as a prelude to marriage and embarrasses herself.
Some time later, in a post-credits sequence, Helen has a comical run-in with the working-class Leonard Bast (Sam West), whose umbrella she has mistakenly taken. Bast becomes an acquaintance of the family, and his story provides a pivotal plot point.
But ultimately, Helen's older sister Margaret (Emma Thompson) will emerge as the film's central character.
When the aforementioned Wil-cox family coincidentally moves into a flat across the street from the Schlegel sisters, Helen, still embarrassed about her earlier social error, takes an extended trip abroad. Margaret, however, being an effervescent, gregarious sort, pays a call on the Wilcoxes and becomes friendly with the family matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave), who is quite ill.
It is Mrs. Wilcox's death early in the film that provides the single most important plot point, upon which hinges just about everything that follows. She scribbles a note in the hospital, a note that leaves her country home, Howards End, to Margaret. But Mrs. Wilcox's husband (Anthony Hopkins), who doesn't really know Margaret, conspires with his children to destroy the note. It is a spiteful gesture to keep Howards End in the family, despite the fact that no one goes there anymore.
Then, a bit later, Mr. Wilcox compounds the nastiness with an offhanded remark, which proves to be deliberately deceptive and sets into motion a series of events that will prove devastating to Leonard Bast.
"Howards End" is an exploration of British class distinctions, but it is also a complex story about how the people we meet in this life affect us for good or ill, and how we affect them. In that way it is somewhat comparable to "It's a Wonderful Life," on a more subtle level.
If I have any complaints about "Howards End," and they are minimal, it is that the ending plays a bit flat and that some of the transitions are a bit confusing. (Several critics have said "Howards End" is better than "A Room With a View," but "Room" remains my favorite in this genre.)
Still, there's no question that the Merchant-Ivory folk, chiefly producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, are at the top of their form. They have been making movies together for 30 years, and it's hard to imagine anyone being able to pull off period ensemble stories with the same wit, charm and dramatic impact that this team manages.
The engaging cast could not possibly be better, from veterans Hopkins (in one of his best roles here), Redgrave (cast distinctly against type), Thompson (of "Dead Again," here given an opportunity to show many colors) and Bonham Carter (perfectly cast in yet another period role, after shining also in "A Room With a View" and "Where Angels Fear to Tread"), to newcomers West and Nicola Duffett, who evoke tremendous sympathy as the Basts.
"Howards End" is rated PG for a scene of violence toward the end, a couple of mild profanities and implied sex.