Nothing like a good long hard gulp of old Forster to clear the sinuses and settle down the palpitating heart, and that's what James Ivory's "Howards End" serves up, neat.
The movie, which opens today at the Charles (with a benefit for AIDS Action Baltimore), takes E.M. Forster's longest, densest and most ironic novel, a typically polite condemnation of the British class system in which a man of feeling is crushed by well-meaning but out-of-control forces, and gives it extraordinary snap, crackle and pop. And unlike the Hollywood approach to adapting novels, Ivory and his collaborators don't destroy the piece by "fixing" it. They actually appear to have read it. They haven't even figured out that dead white European males like Forster are declasse today.
The story appears to sum up Forster's vision of the two middle-class Britains and how through history they danced about each other, came close, and yet somehow never quite joined. But it offers hope for a merger, for a salvation of the British soul, though it also examines the consequences of this minuet, as played out upon the lower class.
The Wilcoxes represent commercial Britain, the nation of shopkeeps (even to the world): hard-charging, unreflective, rigid, narrow of both tolerance and patience, their compassion dipstick reading about two quarts low, they are very much the engine that drove the Empire. And the fuel that drove the engine, to completely overplay this metaphor, was their self-righteousness. Anthony Hopkins is Henry Wilcox, the chief of the clan, and he's as irritatingly shallow as he is irritatingly confident as he is irritatingly competent.
His slightly dotty wife Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave), however, is the true owner of Howards End, a lovely country house that also stands symbolically for the nation. (The contest in the movie is fTC for possession of it.) Thus Henry Wilcox cannot quite take full possession of it, and when his wife dies, he is shocked to discover that in a last gesture, his wife has willed it not to himself or her two obnoxious children, but to Margaret Schlegel.
The Schlegels are the other half of middle-class Britain: artistic, "progressive," concerned, indignant, compassionate, aesthetic. They suspect there's a higher life possible and that sustenance through ideas and ideals is just as important as sustenance through rashers of bacon, meat pies and bangers. They don't think Oscar Wilde got what he deserved. The Schlegels are half-German on their father's side, which may explain their streak of romanticism. In any event, the family takes the form of two surviving sisters and a brother, who seem to bustle about London going to lectures and museums and reading the new novels (none of these people seem to actually work, by the way.)
The weird gyre of fate keeps whirling the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes together. First Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) falls in love with Wilcox's youngest boy and confuses his innocent flirtation with a declaration of love. Quite a dreadful scene occurs, that is, dreadful by British standards (seven tears, hankies used twice, a hat tilted and some hair mussed).
Then, some months later and quite by chance, Mrs. Wilcox meets Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson) in London and Margaret does one thing to the failing old lady that nobody's done in years: she listens. A marvelous friendship blooms secretly, and thus the house comes to her and not to the Wilcoxes upon the death of the matriarch.
Of course, in an act of self-righteous greed, the Wilcoxes decide that mum can't have meant what she said, and they destroy the will and claim the place as their own. But then Henry meets Margaret and . . . they fall in love.
The fly in the salubrious ointment of cross-culture embrace is one Leonard Bast (Sam West), a poor clerk desperately trying to raise himself from low circumstances. Much in the way fashionable people today frequently take up causes they don't truly understand, so Helen Schlegel decides to make Leonard her project and save him from the maw of class indifference.
What ensues is one of those devilishly complex situations in which each person tries desperately to do the right thing, but there aren't enough right things in the universe to be done to save poor Leonard from getting caught in the crush of class warfare: it's as if all of Western culture collapses on his poor frame.
Forster seems to be mainly about the little accidents, the coincidences, the occasional connections that do so much to define life; he's also wickedly sarcastic in a quiet English way, and Ivory, working from a script by his longtime collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, has great relish in noting the smug tics in the Wilcoxes and the insipid delusions in the Schlegels.
It's quietly savage.
Starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.
Directed by James Ivory.
Released by Sony Pictures.