E. M. Forster’s Howards End makes a most compelling drama, perhaps the best film made during the 30-year partnership of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. Longtime Merchant Ivory collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has distilled the 1910 novel into pungent, concise scenes that grab the viewer and maximize the impact of Forster’s themes about class differences and the harm caused by repressing true feelings.
Aristocratic matriarch Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave) on her deathbed scrawls a note bequeathing her beloved estate Howards End to a recent acquaintance, Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson). Redgrave’s aristocratic husband Henry (Anthony Hopkins) and daughter Evie (real-life daughter Jemma Redgrave) hardly know Thompson and callously destroy the note to selfishly keep the estate in the family even though they don’t live there anymore.
A crucial, initially cryptic, subplot involves insurance company clerk Leonard Bast (Sam West) and his wife Jacky (Nicola Duffett). After chance encounters, Schlegel’s high-spirited sister Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) begins to look out for West’s welfare, resulting in an impromptu tryst and pregnancy.
Hopkins can do no wrong in the acting department, portraying an uppercrust nasty with chilling understatement. In the film’s largest role, Thompson is immensely sympathetic. Bonham Carter proves again that she’s the best actress today at embodying the look and spirit of period roles. Vanessa Redgrave uses unusual phrasing to create an eerie presence in her successful casting against type as the matriarch in failing health.
1992: Best Actress (Emma Thompson), Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction.
Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Supp. Actress (Vanessa Redgrave), Cinematography, Original Score, Costume Design