Friday, March 16, 2012


Only Connect

By Josh R
Adapting a classic novel to the screen is a delicate proposition; with so many ways to go wrong, it’s always slightly unexpected when someone manages to get it entirely right. In many cases, filmmakers adopt an overly reverential stance to their source material; the approach is typified by lavish sets, swelling scores, and resplendently costumed actors speaking as though they’d learned all their lines in elocution class. The screenplays can be slavishly faithful to their source material, to the extent that the end product feels like a pop-up edition of Cliff's Notes. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there will always be certain filmmakers (or auteurs, if you please) who feel compelled to make radical departures from the original, to the point that the resulting film bears only a passing resemblance to the book that inspired it. The mentality that inspires these modifications is somewhat peculiar, in that it smacks of both overconfidence in one’s own interpretive abilities, and lack of confidence in the book. It is very rare — too rare, if we’re going to be honest — that filmmakers trust and appreciate their source material enough to bring it to the screen without treating it like a sacred relic to be handled with kid gloves, or putting it through the ringer and revamping, augmenting and revising the content beyond the point of recognition (or at least beyond the point where the authors — if still living — could resist the urge to sue.) That’s the reason why Merchant Ivory’s superlative production of Howards End, based on E.M. Forster's 1910 novel, stands as one of the best and most satisfying examples of literary adaptation ever produced for the screen. Celebrating the 20th anniversary of its U.S. release this week, it exemplifies how rich an experience a great writing-directing team can create for an audience, merely by respecting the material and keeping things simple.

Howards End followed 1986’s A Room With a View and 1987’s Maurice as the third film adapted from a Forster novel by the veteran team of producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Their affinity and affection for the material is unmistakable; one of the chief distinctions of Howards End is the ease with which the filmmakers capture the style and tone of Forster’s prose, without getting tangled up in the pursuit of trying to replicate it too faithfully. It should be said that the book — a beautifully written, thematically complex evocation of the rapidly changing social climate of late-Edwardian England — is not an ideal candidate for cinematic adaptation. While not exactly short on plot, much of the action takes the form of conversation, with Forster’s own observations about class, social politics and assorted esoterica (the magical properties of Beethoven’s compositions, for example) taking up a fair amount of space. Jhabvala’s elegant treatment expertly condenses the content of the novel without narrowing its scope; the screenplay manages to be economical without feeling cursory or abridged, or giving short shrift to any of the points the Forster hoped to convey in his illustration of the clashing temperaments, ideas and values of two very different families merging into one.

The repercussions of the unlikely, somewhat uncomfortable union of the Wilcoxes and Schlegels are mordantly humorous on one level, tragic on another. In a way, the novel anticipates what was to happen to Britain in the years immediately following its publication — while Forster couldn’t have augured what was on the horizon (the rumblings were felt in 1910, but the wolf had yet to arrive at the door), his considerations hearken to an impending war abroad that would change forever the rules at home. With the Victorian world poised on the brink of cataclysm, and its quaint, restrictive mandates about class, morality and gender roles being rendered increasingly obsolete, Howards End charts the fallout from a collision of the members of the old guard grounded in the traditions of the past with an intrepid new breed determined to topple the old world order. How far will people go in the vain attempt to hold on to what’s slipping from their grasp, Forster wonders, and how will they adapt in the face of inevitable change? Above all, how do the proponents of two wildly divergent philosophies and outlooks, meeting at the intersection of the death of an Empire and the dawn of a a new era characterized by turbulent social upheaval, not only coexist, but communicate, compromise and connect? The opening epigraph of Howards End is, in fact, “Only connect”; a simple directive in theory, if infinitely more complicated in practice.

The thorny considerations at the heart of the author’s scheme — in a work the critic and essayist Lionel Trilling, among others, considered to be Forster’s masterpiece — are neatly encapsulated in the dealings between a small circle of friends, relations and acquaintances representing three distinct social classes. At the center of the narrative are Margaret and Helen Schlegel (Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter), two sisters with progressive leanings living on a genteel middle-class income in London — the bohemian social circle of writers, intellectuals and rabble-rousers they frequent is loosely modeled on The Bloomsbury Group, of which Forster was a member. Vacationing abroad, the Schlegels meet and befriend another pair of English tourists, the wealthy business magnate Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins) and his wife Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave). When Helen accepts an invitation to join the Wilcoxes at Howards End, Mrs. Wilcox's pastoral childhood home in the English Countryside, she forms a hasty, impetuous attachment to their younger son, Paul (Joseph Bennett). When their short-lived flirtation concludes on an awkward, mutually embarrassing note, the two families are briefly estranged. Margaret reconnects with the frail Mrs. Wilcox in London, where their renewed acquaintance soon develops into a strong bond of friendship; Margaret is both intrigued and moved by Mrs. Wilcox’s deep connection to the traditions of the past and the natural world, represented by Howards End. Before her death, Ruth wills the house to Margaret — Mr. Wilcox and his two other adult children, Charles and Evie (James Wilby and Jemma Redgrave — daughter of Corin, niece to Vanessa), deliberately decide to withhold the existence of the will from Margaret’s attention, unwilling to cede ownership of what they consider to be theirs by familial right.

Through a chance encounter, Margaret and Helen strike up an acquaintance with Leonard Bast (Samuel West), a shy young clerk from a modest, lower-class background. Adopting him as a de facto protege and seeking to improve his prospects, the sisters apply to Mr. Wilcox for advice. Mr. Wilcox gives them a faulty piece of insider information about Leonard’s place of employment — which he believes to be on the brink of ruin — that will eventually result in Leonard leaving his job, and unable to obtain employment elsewhere. Meanwhile, Mr. Wilcox finds himself becoming increasingly drawn to Margaret and, after some tentative attempts at courtship, surprises her with an offer of marriage. She accepts his proposal, to the confusion and consternation of Helen, who struggles to comprehend how her sister can forsake their shared ideals to assume the mantle of a traditional wife and helpmate to a conservative capitalist.

While the prospective in-laws adjust to the shifting dynamics of their changing relationships, Helen learns that the unemployed Leonard and his wife, Jacky (Nicola Duffet), have been reduced to a life of subsistence-level poverty. An enraged Helen shows up unexpectedly at Evie’s wedding with the Basts in tow, and angrily confronts Margaret with the consequences of Mr. Wilcox’s casually given, ultimately very costly advice. Seeking to pacify Helen and avoid further conflict, Margaret applies to Henry for help — while he feels no personal responsibility for the Basts’ circumstances, Mr. Wilcox agrees to provide Leonard with a position at his company. When Mr. Wilcox and Mrs. Bast meet face-to-face, Jacky recognizes him as her former lover. A humiliated Mr. Wilcox is forced to admit to Margaret that he not only betrayed the trust of his previous wife, but did so with a woman far below his station in life, whom he subsequently (and rather callously) discarded after tiring of the relationship. Against her own misgivings, Margaret decides to forgive Henry and keep the engagement intact; in a curt, peremptory note to Helen, she informs her that Mr. Wilcox can be of no assistance to the Basts, and orders her sister to abandon her sponsorship of the couple.

As the now-married Margaret and increasingly rootless Helen drift further apart, the latter has a brief affair with Leonard, resulting in a pregnancy. Upon learning of Helen’s condition — and the status of social outcast conferred upon her as an unwed mother — Margaret asks Mr. Wilcox to allow her sister to stay at Howards End. Henry refuses, believing that Helen’s compromised position would bring disgrace upon the family. Margaret angrily confronts her husband with his hypocrisy, and repairs with Helen to Howards End in flagrant disregard for his instructions. When Leonard — whose identity as the father of Helen’s child has been ascertained by the Wilcoxes — arrives unexpectedly at Howards End in search of Helen, his appearance results in a violent confrontation with a tragic denouement. While no one emerges entirely unscathed, both the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes find there is room for reconciliation, forgiveness, renewal and — perhaps most critically of all — a fundamental shift in values, paired with hope for the future. While the two families, representing the traditional and the modern, will never view the world in exactly the same way, they have at least managed to achieve a measure of balance. Complete understanding can elude even the most devoted of friends, lovers and family members; if we can “only connect,” those who seek to bridge the gap can, at the very least, respect each other’s limitations and forgive each other’s frailties. Forster poses, but offers no definitive conclusion about, the question of who shall inherit England, and whose values and ideals shall give shape to the future; he only concludes that the future cannot improve upon the past in the absence of a true meeting of the minds.

Whenever I watch Howards End — as I do periodically, when the depressingly reductive nature of most films based on books I love becomes too much for me to bear — I’m always struck by the naturalism of Ivory’s approach, atypical not only of literary adaptations, but period pieces in general. While the film certainly is beautiful to look at (Luciana Arrighi and Ian Whitaker’s production design received an Oscar, while Jenny Beaven and John Bright’s costumes and Tony Pierce-Roberts’ cinematography also were nominated), there’s nothing over-scaled, overwrought or just plain over-the-top about the visual component of the film. The world of the Howards End is drawn from recognizable reality, as opposed to a heightened fantasy version of Edwardian times (for a bit of comparison — start grinding your teeth now, Copeland — the design aspects of the following year’s The Age of Innocence were so damn amplified and prettified the thing might as well have been set in Disney World.) This blessedly unfettered approach extends to the way Ivory has managed the members of his cast. The film is refreshingly unencumbered by actors striking the romantic poses of Victorian thespians, or intoning their lines as if they were auditioning for the Royal Shakespeare Company; it seems hard for many contemporary directors to accept that, even a hundred years ago, people still spoke to each other in a conversational fashion. The characters of Howards End may find themselves in melodramatic situations, but their actions and behaviors never strike a false note, or smack of affectation. Likewise, the original score provided by Richard Robbins — augmented with a few selections by classical composer Percy Grainger — is richly evocative without being intrusive; the music underscores the action while resisting the urge to provide easy, obvious emotional cues.

It’s so easy — and really, a little exhausting — to enumerate and expound upon the plethora of acuminous decisions that went into the making of Howards End, and talk about how seamlessly its various elements fit together; but the creative team (with particular credit going to Merchant) most emphatically demonstrated their love and respect for the material in terms of their casting choices. When it comes to casting projects with ostensibly little in the way of commercial appeal, the standard practice involves enlisting the talents of bankable stars; had Howards End been made by a major Hollywood studio in the early '90s, Forster’s intrepid Schlegel sisters might well have been entrusted to Julia Roberts and Demi Moore (if that was the film that had been made, methinks yours truly would not be writing this 20th anniversary Tribute.) Certainly, Merchant Ivory wasn’t enough of a financial powerhouse — even in the wake of several notable successes — to afford the type of big names that a Tinseltown outfit might have foisted upon the project. Still, the men who controlled the purse strings could have advocated for more in the way of name recognition (The Silence of the Lambs had yet to be released at the time of the film’s shooting) in drafting the film’s ensemble. Instead, they chose to pair rich, challenging roles with actors of commensurate talent who fit the descriptions provided by Forster. Watching the film, you can’t shake the implausible impression that the author must have been writing these characters with these specific players in mind; every member of the cast delivers an emotionally authentic performance that not only highlights Forster’s keen observations on human nature, but embodies the descriptions contained in his prose with an uncanny degree of exactitude. Fresh from his lip-smacking tutorial on scenery-chewing as Hannibal Lecter, Hopkins showed that he was able to shift gears with surprising dexterity. His Henry Wilcox is a masterful study in restraint, rigidity and misplaced confidence. While he is often unlikable, his unflappable certainty and sense of masculine entitlement have a certain magnetic quality; an audience can still understand why the heroine would be drawn to him almost in spite of herself. It’s to the actor’s credit that by the end of the film, the viewer actually can feel a certain degree of sympathy for this hidebound specimen of Victorian prerogatives who can’t adjust to the changing times, or comprehend how little control he has over his own destiny. Samuel West, with his gawky gait and naturally downcast features, does a very fine job of fleshing out the inchoate yearnings of Leonard Bast, grounding a character conceived on a very romantic level. It would be easy for a more conventional performer to come across as too poetic and tragic for words — fortunately, West brings enough quirky specificity to his performance that he doesn’t simply register as delicate and doomed. James Wilby — who played the title role in Maurice — provides a nice vignette of unctuousness coupled with doltishness as the uncomprehending elder son, whose very lack of imagination renders him capable of destruction.

As fine as the male cast members are, Howards End really belongs to the women — and they are a wonder to behold. As the least-known member of the principal cast, Emma Thompson received fourth billing as Margaret Schlegel; for graciously ceding that status to Hopkins, Redgrave and Bonham Carter, she received the best actress Oscar, along with about every other prize the international awards-giving community had to offer. To many, her rapid ascent from virtual unknown to unstoppable trophy magnet registered as a bolt from the blue; while she had been impressive on previous occasions, most notably opposite her then-husband, Kenneth Branagh, in the BBC miniseries Fortunes of War, it was by virtue of her revelatory performance in Howards End that her film career was launched in earnest. Really, it’s very fortunate that 1992 was such a weak year for leading ladies, a fact Thompson tacitly commented on during her acceptance speech in wishing aloud for “the creation of more great female roles.” Performances this subtle don’t usually win Academy Awards; even before the voting began, the British novice already had a big advantage over her more established competition by virtue of being in the only film on voters’ radar screens (most of the people I went to school with in 1993 hadn’t even heard of the other nominees’ films, let alone seen them - I remain unconvinced that Love Field and Lorenzo’s Oil played on any screens outside of New York and Los Angeles.) In retrospect, it’s no surprise that the actress' career blossomed as quickly as it did in the wake of that acknowledgement — as Margaret Schlegel, she exhibited some of the special brand of self-possession, equal parts intelligence and radiance, that Deborah Kerr trafficked in so well for more than 20 years as a Hollywood staple, tempered with a quickness and quirkiness unique to Emma Thompson.

There are so many moments in Thompson’s performance to treasure — the staircase proposal scene alone is essential viewing for acting students — and her choices are disarmingly original. With the flashes of wit and halting sensuality she brings to the part, it’s fair to say that her creation is actually an improvement on Forster’s (the Margaret of the novel is a bit on the earnest side), and she brings a sense of dramatic coherency to a character whose motives are sometimes difficult to fully accept at the author’s insistence. Margaret is a spirited, independent woman with a lively, intelligent mind and a practical sensibility; in forsaking her values, she is not merely a sheep being led meekly to the slaughter, but the willing architect of her own moral compromise. It’s the shades of loneliness and yearning Thompson brings to the role, as well as her expert communication of Margaret’s dawning awareness of herself as a desirable, attractive woman and growing fascination with Wilcox’s dynamic clarity of mind and purpose, that make the transitions seem logical.

As great as Thompson is — and really, her performance is both the soul of the film and the motor that drives it — Bonham Carter’s contribution in the role of Helen was and remains greatly undervalued. I particularly appreciate her interplay with Thompson; the actresses complement each other beautifully, and strike up a rhythm that truly suggests (as Forster asserts) that the sisters are two halves of the same whole. When they’re finishing each other’s sentences, or reacting to things in unison with near identical physical responses, it seems natural to accept that these two women have been a constant presence in each other's lives since childhood. When the rift between the sisters goes into effect, Bonham Carter displays a fire and urgency unlike anything in her previous work. Helen’s dramatic flashes of temper, the product of being uncertain of her place in the world once she’s lost her moorings (you still feel the tug of symbiotic sibling relationships once you become a solo act), never seem overstated; the sense of hurt and confusion that fuel her character’s behavior are made explicit, without being hammered home too emphatically.

Finally, there is Vanessa Redgrave, who was initially noncommittal when offered the role of Ruth Wilcox. She relented when Merchant told her she could basically name her own price — a gutsy move for the producer of a film being made on a limited budget. Whatever figure the two resolved upon, her services were worth every pound of Merchant’s money; no other actress could have played the part with the same degree of luminousness and lyricism. There’s always been a vague, dreamy quality about Vanessa Redgrave, coupled with an air of inscrutability — a friend of mine once speculated it might be the product of her having dropped too much acid in the '60s (I don’t believe this for a second — but if drug use will help any of today’s young actresses approximate the qualities of Vanessa Redgrave, I say Get Thee to a Dealer.) The character of Ruth is more of a literary conceit than a flesh-and-blood woman; she’s a symbolic Earth Mother figure tied to the land, the properties of nature, and pre-Christian mysticism; ancestral voices are supposed to reverberate in her presence. With her lovely, elegiac performance, Vanessa Redgrave actually makes sense of Ruth as a person. The shades of wistfulness and melancholy she brings to the part lend Ruth’s predicament — that of an ethereal, isolated onlooker bewildered by the modern world, unknowable even to those who love her most — an almost unbearable element of poignancy. It’s a towering performance, delivered on a human scale.

After all this, it is with a certain degree of reluctance that I’ll admit that Howards End is not bound to be everyone’s cup of veddy British tea. For those who prefer films with less resonance — where everything is pitched faster, louder and without much in the way of subtlety — there are surely no lack of entertainments to provide satisfaction (and numbness). Speaking only for myself, I find it heartening to revisit Howards End — a prime example of how good filmmaking can be when a great director, screenwriter, producer and cast embrace and honor the novel they’re bringing from the page to the screen. Forster’s epigraph should serve as guidance for anyone attempting an exercise in literary adaptation: Only Connect.

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I said it when I originally saw Howards End and I stand by it today: Henry Wilcox is more frightening than Hannibal Lecter. As for your comparison to The Age of Innocence, to some extent you are comparing apples and oranges. Howards End depicts several social classes in England around the same time period, but none of them come from the highest reaches of society while The Age of Innocence takes place in the U.S. exclusively among the upper crust so why wouldn't their largesse be shown? Perhaps a comparison to Edwardian England would be The King's Speech. Merchant Ivory themselves painted a gorgeous portrait of the trappings of the well-to-do a couple decades down the road in their film the same year as Age of InnocenceTbe Remains of the Day.
Your point is well-taken in that action of the two respective films take place very different milieus; that said, I still find the visual element of Age to be a overblown, and - for lack of a better word - masturbatory. This is fault common to Scorcese's period pieces - have slums and rags ever looked as resplendently, photogenically gorgeous as they did in Gangs of New York? I will say that the fault is not Scorcese's alone, and that in a certain context, it can be entirely appropriate (Hugo is a fantasy-based film in some ways - a magical, hidden world as seen through the eyes of a child - so the element of beauty and spectacle seems right.) I also think the mannered, formal performances of Day-Lewis, Pfeiffer and Ryder don't benefit from comparison to the naturalism of the actors in Howards' End - again, just because they lived a hundred years ago, it doesn't people didn't speak in a conversational fashion.
I won't argue about the acting: the Howards End cast is vastly superior and as much as I love Winona, I preferred Miriam Margolyes as the supporting actress in Age. Day-Lewis though I thought gave one of his least mannered performances, especially when compared to In the Name of the Father, the one he got nominated for that year. It's his unfulfilled yearning that really powers the film. I don't think of Gangs being particularly gorgeous though (except for those really neat costumes. It was pretty dirty, grimy and muddy. Sort of had a bit of a Deadwood look to it at times.
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