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‘Howards End’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 24, 1992


James Ivory
Emma Thompson;
Anthony Hopkins;
Vanessa Redgrave;
Helena Bonham Carter;
James Wilby;
Samuel West
Parental guidance suggested
Best Actress; Adapted Screenplay; Art Direction

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Director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant, who also brought E.M. Forster's novels "Maurice" and "Room With a View" to screen, have outdone themselves in the sublime "Howards End." A sumptuous return to Forster's England, it portrays a people as plump as the scones they devour at tea time and a mood as expansive as King Edward's waistline. At the same time, it reveals a perversely constricting under-structure of tightly laced corsets and lingering Victorianism. Something is bound to give, if only a stitch in the social fabric.

Set at the confluence of the 19th and 20th centuries, Forster's romantic satire concerns the shaky union of two disparate families through a succession of literary coincidences. The Schlegel sisters, vivacious European sophisticates, are fated by Forster's pen to repeatedly encounter, engage and enlighten the prosperous, veddy British Wilcoxes. On a visit to the Wilcoxes' manicured country home, blithe, flighty Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham Carter) falls for the Wilcoxes' youngest son, an affair that ends so badly that the families would as soon avoid each other ever after.

Nevertheless, they meet again, when the Wilcoxes (Vanessa Redgrave and Anthony Hopkins) take a flat opposite the Schlegels' London town house. Saintly, shining Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson) becomes a good friend to the ailing Mrs. Wilcox, who leaves her estate, Howards End, to Margaret -- a bequest the Wilcoxes unanimously agree to ignore. As a penance for their duplicity, it seems the Wilcoxes can do nothing but run into the Schlegels. As a side effect, Mr. Wilcox becomes completely captivated by Margaret and to his children's horror, proposes to her. And much to the chagrin of the Schlegels, Margaret accepts.

The characters, all beautifully drawn to start with, seem not to have stepped from the pages of a leather-bound book, but straight out of pre-World War I England. That's thanks to the talents of Merchant and Ivory, whose careful reconstructions of the period are doubtless better than the real 1900s. The women might all have stepped out of a cameo and the men from Leicester Square. The black carriages gleam like a gentleman's top hat and the cobbles of the horse-trod streets are never fouled. Visits to the countryside bring clouds of wisteria and carpets thick with bluebells.

The story, however, is far from antique. Adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a frequent Merchant-Ivory collaborator, the screenplay seems perfectly suited to today, dealing as it does with everything from socioeconomic injustice to the women's rights movement. Mr. Wilcox might go unnoticed in "Wall Street," just as his first wife might step into the traditional mother's shoes in "Fatal Attraction." Wilcox, who advises against "taking up a sympathetic attitude for the poor," is set against the charitable Helen Schlegel, while the first Mrs. Wilcox, who observes, "I am thankful not to have the vote," is set against the second. Still, while the turn-of-the-century social fabric is wearing thin, there are the deeper, more spiritual ties that bind them.

Merchant and Ivory have regathered many of the cast and crew from their earlier films to work on this reproduction to exquisite effect. It is probably harder to gain sympathy for stuffy Mr. Wilcox than for Hannibal Lecter, yet Hopkins does it without seeming to try. And James Wilby, who plays spoiled heir Charles Wilcox, manages to be as shallow as a silver spoon. But the film's driving force is Thompson, who balances delicately along its ironic edge like a tightrope walker with an umbrella. Redgrave is delicacy itself, fine as bone china with a thin crack visible only when held up to the light. And Bonham Carter, who played opposite Mel Gibson in "Hamlet," obviously brings a little of mad Ophelia to her disconcertingly comic role.

Like all the other Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala films, "Howards End" is fleet but not in a hurry. The scenes are clear and lean against the richness of the setting, but they flow leisurely toward the climax, like a punt bearing two lovers languidly downstream. Naturally the picture includes the punt and the lovers, the quiet stream, the willows moping along the verdant bank. If Merchant, Ivory and Jhabvala have anything to do with it, there'll always be an England.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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