Howards End (1992)

Director: James Ivory
Screenwriter: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Adapted from: Howards End by E.M. Forster
Cast: Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Anthony Hopkins, Adrian Ross Magenty, Vanessa Redgrave, James Wilby, Samuel West, Nicola Duffett
Nominations: Picture, Director – James Ivory, Actress – Emma Thompson, Supporting Actress – Vanessa Redgrave, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Score
Wins: Actress – Emma Thompson, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction

When viewing a film that takes place during Victorian or Edwardian Britain, I’m always struck by how rigid the class system is.  Unlike in the U.S., where the American dream and upward mobility still exist and drive the lives of many, most films depicting characters in those eras highlight the strict delineation between the social classes.  That’s not to imply, of course, that the United States doesn’t have a class structure—it’s more to say that climbing the social ladder in the U.S. seems to be much easier and more acceptable than in England during the mid-nineteenth century.

Howards End offers a different side of that coin, however, with the (presumably, considering they’re never seen working) upper-class Schlegels, especially the sisters Margaret and Helen, having more progressive views concerning one’s place in society.  Granted, we only see the Schlegels taking an interest in Leonard Bast, but this isn’t a sprawling story about all of Edwardian Britain, just of the three featured families.  Helen, the younger, more passionate of the siblings, acts impulsively, but only because she cares so.  With Leonard, whom Helen first encounters at a lecture, she sees potential and a drive to improve his status in life and society.  Unlike Helen’s brother, Leonard does not have the means to attend university; he can only gain respect through hard work and career advancement, though that in itself is not a guarantee for a better life.

Where Helen is hasty and strong-headed, Margaret is methodical and even-handed.  In fact, it’s Margaret’s demeanor that probably attracts Henry to her in that she’s very much like Henry’s first wife, Ruth.  Both are aware of their position but are open to expand their social circle for others without causing any kind of uproar (unlike Helen).  Taken together, the three women seem to represent the evolution of a woman’s place in society: Ruth is of the traditional role of wife and mother with the husband keeping tabs on business, politics, finances, etc.; Helen is a more modern woman who cares not for what is expected of her, only for what is best for her and others; Margaret is the transitional woman who appreciates societal expectations but also recognizes the importance of becoming an individual person with agency and motivations of her own beyond that of her husband’s.

The plot of Howards End is as simple as its characters are complex, and that makes the film a fantastic journey.  Screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala won a second Oscar for her work—she remains the only woman to win two Oscars for Adapted Screenplay and the second woman to win two writing Oscars (Frances Marion was the first, having done so 60 years earlier)—which was well-deserved given the quality of depth she embodies within her characters.  Margaret, especially, demonstrates an emotional adaptability not often seen in film.  Fortunately, because Prawer Jhabvala allows the characters to exist in their world instead of operating as pieces of a plot, we can appreciate Margaret’s choices and reasons as she forgives her various family members’ misdeeds, deceptions, and impulsive inclinations.  She’s a decent person in a sea of propriety and society construct, bridging the gap between “what one ought to do” and what one is morally and ethically obligated to do.  In a strange way, Margaret is like an Edwardian superhero, caring more for others than herself even when what society says she ought to do would be more convenient.