The Schlegels are English through and through, despite a German name that blots the copybook somewhat and makes them sound foreign. Margaret, the eldest (Emma Thompson), is a jolly good sort, and Tibby (Adrian Ross Magenty) wears specs and looks like the school swot.
Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) is outrageous and says what she thinks. She simply doesn’t care.
Howards End is in the country. It’s not enormous, like those monstrous piles industrial magnates built near coal mines up north. It’s stuffed with happy memories, or so Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave) says, and she should know since she was brought up there.
When Helen stays once, as a guest, she has a fling with Ruth’s son, Paul (Joseph Bennett), but it doesn’t last. Neither family thinks the other is good enough.
Later, Margaret becomes friendly with Ruth, because the Wilcoxes take a flat in town opposite the Schlegels, while their other son, Charles (James Wilby), is getting married.
Ruth’s husband, Henry (Anthony Hopkins), runs an import/export business in the City. He is a dry old stick, not the sort Helen appreciates because he’s like all men of that age, expecting obedience, never listening, and treating girls like ducklings.
Ruth loves Howards End. It represents the happiest years of her life. When she is in hospital, desperately weak after an operation, she writes a note to Henry that she wants Margaret to have the house when she dies. Henry discusses this with his children, and all agree to burn the note.
The Wilcoxes own other houses, and Henry intends to let Howards End anyway, but the thought of allowing a relative stranger to have it is out of the question.
Helen, by this time, has met her insurance clerk. He’s called Leonard Bast (Samuel West) and is married to a slut. He wants to better himself (he studies the stars and likes reciting poetry in bluebell woods) but has certain defects – like no sense of humour. He is diffident and apologetic and gives an impression of failure. Helen treats him as a cause.
The Wilcoxes are conventional, unimaginative and solid.
The Schlegels are different. They enjoy life, involve themselves in discussion, debate, and intellectual pursuits.
Margaret has such a sunny disposition, and Helen is spirited and spontaneous. Tibby lets himself be teased and provoked and, as a resident undergraduate, views the world with a casualness that deliberately avoids a commercial grounding.
Everything changes when Helen takes up with Leonard Bast, and Margaret marries Henry. It’s like friendships have become mementoes from an abandoned nursery. Margaret embraces her duties as mistress of Henry’s estates, leaving Helen to rebel alone and cause worries to the rest of them.
Henry’s children view a stepmother, especially one so young, as a threat. All they think about is their inheritance.
Whether Howards End is EM Forster’s masterpiece remains a matter of conjecture. Looking at it through James Ivory’s lens, guided by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s adaptation and manifested by a glittering cast, there is a definite leaning towards literary licence.
Bast is not a character so much as an argument. His wife, who knows Henry from her younger days in Malta, is a dramatic squib. Margaret’s conversion to the traditions of the rich – with a husband devoid of fun or sentiment – is not convincing, and the finale, with its ritualistic knot-tying, has an unusual neatness.
The acting is polished to a shine. As Ruth Wilcox, Vanessa Redgrave carries the weight of her loyalty like a hereditary illness, and Emma Thompson’s Margaret beams with good cheer, steeling herself for the harsh shocks like a mother to the battle.
James Wilby has been cloistered with posh wimps so long that he’s unrecognisable as Charles. Hardly the black-heart villain, he appears servile and devious, teetering on the brink of caricature but never falling.
Helena Bonham Carter, as Helen, follows the excitement of her Ophelia in Zeffirelli’s Hamlet with another powerful performance. She conveys intelligence, wilfulness, passion and courage.
Anthony Hopkins’s Henry contains every facet of an emotionally stunted ex-public school man, self-deprecating with women, stern and autocratic with men. He exemplifies male dominance in matters of money, property and decorum, hinting at an ingrained selfishness that accompanies arrogance.
Emma Thompson received a total of thirteen nominations for her role. She won in all those events, including an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a BAFTA as Best Actress.
In reality, ‘Howards End’ was Peppard Cottage in Rotherfield Peppard, Oxfordshire, a 14th-century house that was also used for classic British shows such as Poirot, Inspector Morse and Midsomer Murders.
Helena Bonham Carter
Adrian Ross Magenty
Tom the Farmer’s Boy