Thursday, September 4, 2014

Merchant Ivory

Film: Howards End
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

Ah, Merchant/Ivory. You know what you’re getting with a Merchant/Ivory picture, which means I knew exactly what I was signing up for with Howards End. One a slightly more positive note for me, at least this particular period drama is one that takes place in the 20th century rather than the 19th or earlier. I don’t dislike period dramas in general, but Merchant/Ivory fare tends to be along the line of Eddie Izzard’s spoof of British films involving people named Sebastian rearranging matches and having stilted conversations of half sentences. There’s almost a prudishness to their style, as if the height of romance were longing glances and pining.

Howards End has some of those traits, but it’s also an interesting social commentary. It is a treatise on social class and changing social roles in Edwardian England. It does this by contrasting the various fortunes and social mixings of three families. The first is the Schlegels who, despite their partly-German ancestry, are British to the core. They are a monied family deep with tradition. The Wilcox family are new money and extremely concerned with social rank in the main because they have only recently attained the sort of wealth that affords them such privilege. The third family is the Basts, who are poor but ambitious.

These three families come together and intermingle and drift apart throughout the film, with much of the action centered on an estate called Howards End owned by the Wilcoxes. As the film opens, Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham Carter) and the youngest Wilcox, Paul (Joseph Bennett) find themselves rushing headlong into an engagement with each other only to regret it the next day. This regret comes after Helen has announced her sudden engagement to her sister Margaret (Emma Thompson). Everything blows over quickly, save that everyone is dreadfully embarrassed, which means that the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes essentially pretend that the others don’t exist.

That comes to a head when the Wilcoxes move into a house literally across the street from the Schlegels in London. At this time, Margaret because friendly with the sickly matron of the Wilcox family, Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave). The two become very good friends—so good in fact that Ruth wills the house of Howards End to Margaret, an impromptu will that the Wilcox clan destroys lest someone outside the family claim one of their retreats.

Meanwhile, the Schlegels encounter Leonard Bast (Samuel West), who is both up-and-coming and down-and-out. The Schlegel’s do what they can to help him, although everything the semm to use to help him just ends of backfiring. Through their insistence, he quits his clerking job and tries banking, but that career doesn’t pan out. Soon, he is a man without a position, trying desperately to support his wife Jacky (Nicola Duffett).

What gets in the way of all of these lives? Pride. Everyone is too proud to do much of anything other than complain of the lower classes as a more or less grouped malignancy. And really, this is the entire point of the film. Social roles were started to break down and social movement of a very small sort became possible

So how is Howards End? It’s what I expected. This is a slow and painstaking drama where most of the film actually takes place within the context of people's innermost thoughts and through conversation. Things are done for convenience and with the help of great handfuls of the Wilcoxes’ money. Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins), who eventually marries Margaret, is the cold moral center of the clan. While not aggressively dead-set against the poor, this is someone who would be extremely comfortable with ignoring them, figuring that such was their fate. It’s cold and heartless. Ayn Rand would approve.

Emma Thompson is the standout here. It is she who carries the film, after all, as the one person who seems to move between the three strata of social development. I like her in this role just fine; I simply wish that I liked Howards End more.

This is not the sort of film I normally watch. I don’t have anything against a good domestic drama, but the people in this film act out of a sense of exaggerated entitlement and self-importance. So, it’s one and done for me. I can’t think of a good reason to go back and explore this further.

Why to watch Howards End: A Merchant Ivory film set in a time that at least has cars.
Why not to watch: Everyone's kind of a jerk.


  1. If you haven't seen it already, you'll positively cream all over "Remains of the Day."

    1. I haven't seen it yet. It's coming soon. In fact, yesterday when I checked some films out of the library, I choose between this and that--I needed to get a little more Merchant Ivory-style films out of the way but I didn't think I could do two in a week.

  2. I saw this over 25 years ago. About all I remember is that the friend who was watching it with me kept giggling uncontrollably when they were showing the nude men skinnydipping. Oh, and the young woman playing the piano with passion after she had achieved whatever breakthrough in life it was.

    1. If I'm remembering it correctly, the male skinny dipping scene is actually in A Room With a View, not that there's a substantial amount of difference.

    2. Now that you mention it, you're right. Howard's End was made in the, I want to say, early 90s. A Room with a View was the film from the 80s. THAT'S why I thought to myself, "Emma Thompson was in that?" I had the completely wrong movie in mind. Bonham Carter was in both. I do remember Thompson in Howard's End.

    3. Thompson is worth remembering in Howards End. It's worth noting that this is an extremely well-made film. It's just not one that's made at all for me.