Friday, September 18, 2015

Movie Review - Howards End

Howards End
Based on the book by E.M. Forster
Starring: Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter, Joseph Bennett, Emma Thompson, Prunella Scales, Adrian Ross Magenty, Jo Kendall, Anthony Hopkins, James Wilby, Jemma Redgrave, Samuel West, Simon Callow, Susie Lindeman, and Nicola Duffett
Release Date: March 13th, 1992
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Helen Schlegel is visiting with the Wilcoxes at Howards End, where she becomes engaged to the youngest son Paul. In fits of rapture she writes a letter to her sister telling her of the happy alliance and due to her sister Margaret being unable to journey down to the house their Aunt Juley heads down to suss out the situation. Everything is muddled, the engagement was off before it really began and due to Aunt Juley's misunderstanding chaos reigns with the Wilcoxes and the two families go their separate ways. So how inconvenient that they happen to take a house in London directly opposite the Schlegels for the elder son Charles's wedding. Helen wisely takes herself off to Germany and Paul goes off to Nairobi. This gives Meg and the matriarch Ruth Wilcox a chance to become dear friends. Meg is Ruth's confidant, informing her of her illness, which she hasn't told her family about, as well as how Howards End is her place in the world. Meg longs to see Howards End with Ruth, but it is never to be. Ruth dies shortly thereafter. What Meg doesn't know is that Ruth asked her family to leave Howards End to Meg. The Wilcoxes think this is folly, not knowing the pain Ruth suffered on hearing that the Schlegels were to soon lose their house as the lease was up. But things have a weird way of working themselves out if they are meant to be. Meg ends up marrying Ruth's widower, Henry, and her possessions end up being stored at Howards End, much to the rest of the Wilcoxes displeasure. While Meg's life is sorting itself out, Helen's is spinning even more out of control. She has a hanger-on, Leonard Bast, a poor clerk whom she befriended after accidentally stealing his umbrella. Due to the interactions between the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes Helen hears of some advice for Leonard that she thinks is in his best interest. Instead his friendship with Helen slowly destroys him. Helen, unwilling to believe that anything is her fault, lays the blame on Henry and she cuts herself off from her family after a scene at Henry's daughter Evie's wedding. Helen's behaviour is odd. Something must be behind it. Could it be Leonard? Or could it be the end of everything they believe and hold dear?

I really don't know how many times I have watched Howards End. I wouldn't say it was overly much, in the realm of Clue and The Princess Bride, but then how do I know so much of the blocking and the gestures and the exact way the lines are delivered? So apparently, without my knowing it, I'm some kind of Howards End junky, or the film is just particularly memorable, you choose. But seeing as I had the recent and mortifying experience of learning a new brand of hatred for the book I was still willing to believe in the film. To believe that all this was just me. It was refreshing to find that I still like the film, but by watching it with a jaded and suspicious eye I picked up on the oddest things that I don't think I would ever have noticed were it not for my skepticism. The biggest change is in how the movie diverts from the book, what I call the music and meaning. When Helen first meets Mr. Bast at the concert of that title Merchant and Ivory basically show their hand as to how they are going to treat this film. Instead of Helen going on about the Goblins in the music, they assign that task to Simon Callow in his requisite cameo. Later Helen disagrees with this fanciful assigning of meaning and narrative to the music. She is more prosaic and that makes her differ from the Helen in the book. The film doesn't delve into the deeper meaning of the story. It doesn't dwell on the morbid thoughts of the leads, going instead for the flash and the gloss. This is why the film still works while the book now fails in my mind. The characters internal lives destroy them and make them unrelatable in the book, being petty and self centered asses. By taking things more at face value we are spared the shallow inner lives that Forster wrote and we are left with a satisfying story.    

The movie isn't hurt either by it's superb casting, it's a who's who of the best in British stars, from Antony Hopkins to Samuel West. Emma Thompson picked up her first Oscar for her portrayal of Margaret Schlegel, though personally, I could take or leave Emma Thompson. Yes, the film wouldn't have worked without her, but the truth is that Vanessa Redgrave deserved all of the awards for this film, because it is through her and her character of Ruth Wilcox that the entire tone of the film is set. I defy you to capture the whole feeling of the film better then the first few minutes where Ruth Wilcox is dreamily walking about the grounds of Howards End. It sets up her love of the house and the love of her family. This is the world entire to her and it is perfect. A role that in the book isn't more than a plot device to bring the two families back together after the rift of Helen and Paul is given such depth and pathos that you can't help but be moved. Through her carefully delivered lines we come to love Howards End as she does. Vanessa Redgrave sprinkles magic over the house at the center of the book and gives it a life. In the book you never quite get why the house is so important, why it is everything. Yet in that one speech where Ruth talks about the tree relieving the tooth ache, what in the book is an odd insignificant line, brings all the magic of home and belonging somewhere in the world. Because that is what Howards End is, a place to belong.

Yet if they hadn't found THE PERFECT house I don't know if all Vanessa Redgrave's magic would have worked. In fact, for quite some time this was my dream home. For the country that is. For the city I really wanted the Schlegels house... perhaps that's why I remember this film so much, I wanted to live in their homes. I wanted to live, not in their world or even with them, but in the places they inhabited. The one thing that Forster does and does better than anyone else is describe places in such a magical way that you feel as if you are there, walking through the fields blanketed with flowers. His world, despite the death and despair that always comes at the close, is a place for nature to show it's wonderful bounty. This film felt like the very best of Forster's writing on nature. While Leonard Bast's actual walk through the night isn't magical or mystical in the least on the page, the film captures the romanticism that is found on the road to Monteriano, the woods abundant and fecund with bluebells, even if Broadchurch has tainted my views on woods and bluebells ever so slightly, the magic is still there. There is a Pre-Raphaelite sensibility to the clothing and the flowers that romanticize the setting. Though I will saying that the coupling of Helen and Leonard might have taken the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic a little too far. Overtones of John Everett Millais's Ophelia, and John William Waterhouse's The Lady of Shallot, while apt for their love affair, just made you think how uncomfortable being seduced in a rowboat would be.

Though, for all they did right with the production of the film, whomever did the makeup needs to be called out. Seriously people. I am glad that I don't have a high definition television, because the horror of the men's makeup might not have been endurable. They all look like silent film stars, as in that very overly made up way. I kept expecting them to start mugging for the camera, or for ominous music to start as Emma Thompson was tied to the railway track, or even an Errol Flynn sweep across the screen on a rope as Samuel West showed off his swashbuckling skills. Across the board, their skin is a nice flat spray tan, with the eyes and eyebrows comically enhanced. So, was the makeup lady blind or just hired off the most recent Christmas Panto? Every time Anthony Hopkins wasn't shamefully hiding his face I was about to bust my gut with laughter. I wonder if he saw the dailies and came up with that clever hiding of his face when he had to talk about unpleasantness with Margaret just so that the hideous makeup job had less screen time. All I kept thinking of was the season seven episode of Red Dwarf "Blue," where in order to get Dave to stop missing Rimmer Kryten creates "The Rimmer Experience," a virtual reality ride of Rimmer's life seen through Rimmer's eyes. Everyone is heavily made up to the comical extreme. While it works in a comedy, I don't think that was the look they should have gone for in a period drama! As for how the women escaped this fate? I don't think all of them did, Helena Bonham Carter looks a little too Mary Pickford for my liking.

One thing that drove me crazy throughout was the film's heavy handed foreshadowing. So, if you don't want to be spoiled, stop now. Though it you've read my review of the book I kind of spoiled it without warning, oops. Anyway, so two key things that happen at or near the end of the book is that Charles Wilcox repeatedly hits Leonard Bast with the flat or a sword until Leonard dies of his heart condition, though it is manslaughter. The other is that it comes out that Henry Wilcox cheated on his wife Ruth with Leonard Bast's wife, Jacky, while he was in Cyprus. So how were they heavy handed? With Jacky and Henry, it's just a deliberate mentioning of Cyprus in both their pasts that is never mentioned in the book until they fatefully meet at Evie Wilcox's wedding. As for the killer blade? Oh dear me, even if you didn't know it is coming from reading the book, you would have known it was coming with how they handled every mention of the sword like it was semaphore code. "THIS SWORD IS IMPORTANT PAY ATTENTION!" First it's mentioned by Meg at a dinner party she has at her house with Mrs. Wilcox, then on Leonard's second coming to the house he plays with the hilt, then there's a big to-do with unpacking it at Howards End and hanging it under the mantelpiece, AND THEN Meg and Helen discuss how perfect it sits over the fire, AND THEN it's used as a murder weapon. Four, yes FOUR clumsy and obvious references to that damn sword. Couldn't they have alluded to it in a more sly way? Couldn't they have, I don't know, mentioned it twice and not felt the need to point it out with big flashing lights. The only thing they could have done worse is a giant lighted sign pointing at it going, "Keep Leonard Away!" So much for subtlety. But then again, they were painting the book in broad strokes, which overall worked, how can I fault them for doing a better job overall than the author himself?


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