A Passage to England

Though E.M. Forster was a nonagenarian upon his death, it's interesting to note that most of his novels - with the exception of his last one, A Passage to India - were written when the author was still in his twenties and early thirties. Forster the essayist traversed a sizable chunk of the Twentieth Century, but as a novelist he belonged to a particular historical and cultural well-spring, the post-Victorian England of Edward VII. His earliest novels (Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Room With a View, to name two) dealt liberally with a firmly held conviction that Britain's middle and upper classes were instinctively incapable of passion, and to be freed emotionally, the English had to either be exposed to working-class sensibilities, or experience them in Europe. Not coincidentally, both novels were set in Italy.

Another of Forster's philosophical barbs came in 1910, upon completion of his Edwardian summarizing statement, Howards End. In that story, three classes were represented and - to use Forster's own term - "connected." It is a lofty, idealistic book, one that also succeeds as commentary on disparate elements of English society that Forster sought, by some auctorial alchemy, to unite. This is not to imply the book is dated: Actually, its concentration on real estate, failing financial institutions, the polarization, monetary and cultural, of the haves and have nots, and finally, the debate over a woman's role in society (these were the days of the suffrage, remember), remain au courant in the Nineties.

It is therefore fitting that, after an unprecedented 30 years of partnership, the moviemaking triumvirate made up of German-born screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Indian producer Ismail Merchant, and American director James Ivory - especially taking into account their previous (and successful) adaptions of Forster's A Room With a View and his unfinished homosexual love story, Maurice - should close with Howards End. Indeed, the new film is a fine coda to the Forster-on-film collection, which includes Charles Sturridge's newly released Where Angels Fear to Tread and David Lean's last film of 1984, A Passage to India. It should come as no surprise that this team, after similar excursions into Henry James, Jean Rhys, and Evan S. Connell, have achieved an adaption as faithful to the spirit of Forster as it is to the letter. (The selective omissions necessary for a filmed novel have been done tastefully, though perhaps not as seamlessly as in A Room With a View.)

Howards End is the name of a country home. Owned by Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave), the sensitive, mystical, but conventional-minded wife of Henry (Anthony Hopkins), a tradition-oriented, wealthy businessman, this placid retreat is visited upon, at various key stages of the story, by the chimerical, culturally versed, and emancipated Schlegel sisters, Margaret (Emma Thompson) and Helen (Helena Bonham Carter). As such, the house is a metaphor for Ruth's elusive spirit and her very English love of permanence. It is also a deus ex machina, tying together - connecting - Forster's dichotomous societal and personal factions.

The bottom segment of society is represented by a daydreaming insurance clerk, Leonard Bast (Samuel West), who meets Helen one day after a musical society lecture on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony; he follows her home because she's inadvertently stolen his umbrella. It's a relationship that will have embarrassing, and later, tragic, repercussions.

Early in the story, however, a deep friendship develops quickly between the ailing Mrs. Wilcox and Margaret. Political differences aside, these women share a symbiotic sensibility: Ruth, on her deathbed, leaves a handwritten note bequeathing Howards End to Margaret. The materialistic Wilcoxes, appalled when they learn of this (and no friends of the Schlegels), choose to ignore the document. But things have a way of being predestined, as if Ruth were directing events from beyond the grave: A romantic relationship soon emerges between the widowed Henry and Margaret. After a catharsis toward the end, Margaret assumes the spiritually various mantle left by the first Mrs. Wilcox. In this view of status quo limitations tested and under the gun, Forster cannily suggests that the requisite human fuel, passion, often arises from the least expected - or, as here, the most dreaded - source.

The cast, with two exceptions, cannot be improved upon. Anthony Hopkins gives a phenomenally concentrated performance as Henry Wilcox, a difficult role. The character's obsession with maintaining a dignified position and control allows for little emoting, but Hopkins achieves an almost musical crescendo as Henry's emotional seams begin to burst when events take over. That control, sustaining Henry's implosiveness with the subtlest gestures and expressions, is admirable. Emma Thompson's Margaret is the main character, and despite a too-easily winsome smile, she fares well. Helena Bonham Carter, who's appeared in three Forster adaptations for reasons I fail to fathom, may strike some as attractively pre-Raphaelite. (To me she's a hollow-eyed Miss Piggy, nothing more.) Also, James Wilby overacts badly, with his teeth mostly, as Charles Wilcox. The supporting performers are excellent.

But the crowning achievement is Vanessa Redgrave's Ruth. She's the first person we see in the film, quietly traipsing around her beloved Howards End at gloaming, and she's positively swan-like. Redgrave is no longer the enigmatically sexy beauty of Blow Up and Camelot. Now in her late fifties, a time when actresses are forced to play doddering mothers, she is literally hors concours. Time has conferred upon this actress a majestic radiance, a statuesque power, and even more depth as an artist. In Howards End, when Ruth fixes on Margaret with equally uncertain, then penetrating, stares, the sense of finality is palpable, heartbreaking. Once again, here is the mystery of a great performance, something that, as T.S. Eliot once observed about poetry, begins to communicate long before it is understood.

HOWARDS END
Directed by James Ivory; written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, based on the novel by E.M. Forster; with Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter, Emma Thompson, James Wilby, Samuel West, Jemma Redgrave, and Prunella Scales.

Rated PG.
Opens Friday.

 
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