Doing It Right the Hard Way

The radiant Howards End caps 30 years of Merchant Ivory filmmaking: on the cheap, but with style

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How modern, how very 1990s, the story of 1907 plays today. It is about real estate, and failing insurance companies, and the collision of feminism and domesticity, and the way the upper class misuses and misunderstands the masses. Howards End is a country home owned by the Wilcoxes, pompous Henry (Anthony Hopkins) and ethereal Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave), and visited, on crucial occasions, by the vivacious Schlegel sisters, Margaret (Emma Thompson) and Helen (Helena Bonham Carter). The friendship of Ruth and Margaret is the story's one pure and uncomplicated love. But the fulcrum is Leonard Bast (Samuel West), a clerk who dreams above his station, all the way to the stars. He will discover that the barriers of class are higher still, and that the playthings of the kind Schlegel sisters -- their books and furnishings -- can crush a working-class fellow who has unruly aspirations.

A delight of nearly any Ivory film is the ensemble of actresses. In the lead, Thompson rises to the role's drama and fairly skates on its ironic wit. She also displays the requisite magic of a period heroine: by her radiant example, she teaches the audience how a beautiful soul might behave. Bonham Carter, who has appeared in four Forster-derived films, has never been so fetching a presence: her hair a wild nest, her features fiercely pre- Raphaelite. Redgrave is her usual revelation, this time as a lady cocooned in elevated frailties. So slowly, gently, gravely does she speak, she seems to be translating from a rarefied emotional language that cannot quite find its English equivalent. Yet she and the others are, variously, the ideal vessels to translate Forster's visions of femininity to the screen.

Beginning with David Lean's A Passage to India in 1984, moviemakers have plundered five of Forster's six novels. It is odd that Forster, who lived into his 90s but wrote most of his fiction in his 20s, should have taken so long to become a cinematic cottage industry. But he was never one to make a strong early impression. Author Michael Holroyd has this nice description of the young novelist at Cambridge: "Of middle height and ivory pale complexion . . ." -- we like the ivory; did destiny choose his skin color? -- "he seemed to combine the bashful demureness of a spinster with the more abstract preoccupations of a don."

This engaged reticence -- the acutely tuned disinterest of an extraterrestrial observer who can be both amused and obsessed by the drawling brutality of English manners -- informs all of Forster's novels. It also makes Forster an apt source for Merchant, Ivory and Prawer Jhabvala, three outsiders who have lavished so much attention on British propriety.

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