Margaret and Helen Schlegel (Oscar® winner Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter) are sisters from a well-educated European family: intelligent, free-spirited, cultured, and highly emancipated by the standards of the time. A series of events brings them into a relationship with the Wilcox family: healthy, conservative, conventional, and very English, headed by the prosperous Henry (Anthony Hopkins) and his priggish son, Charles (James Wilby). Both families also come into contact with Leonard Bast (Samuel West) and his wife, a couple near the lowest tier of the rigid class system. Leonard’s desire for cultural and intellectual status attracts the attention of Helen, who must come to terms with her unexpected feelings toward him. At the same time, Margaret must reconcile her independent spirit with her desire for companionship and a comfortable place in Edwardian society; her moral strength is eventually able to resolve the tangle of opposites. First published in 1910, E.M. Forster’s Howards End remains one of the most important English novels of the twentieth century, and Merchant Ivory Productions’ tour-de-force adaptation was one of the most critically acclaimed films of the 1990s.
Howards End is E.M. Forster’s beautifully subtle story of the crisscrossing paths of the privileged and those they disdain—and of a remarkable pair of women who can see beyond class distinctions. Dramatic and tragic, but also surprisingly funny, this James Ivory film focuses on a pair of unmarried sisters (Emma Thompson, who won an Oscar, and Helena Bonham Carter) who befriend a poor young clerk (Sam West) and, without meaning to, ruin his life. Meanwhile, Thompson also makes the acquaintance of a dying neighbor (Vanessa Redgrave), who leaves her a family home in her will—which her husband (Anthony Hopkins) destroys. But, ironically, he meets and falls in love with Thompson, even as their paths once more intersect with the increasingly miserable young clerk. Nuanced acting, gorgeous but muted cinematography, and a beautifully economical script by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, which also won an Oscar. —Marshall Fine
The self-interested disregard of a dying woman’s bequest, an impulsive girl’s attempt to help an impoverished clerk, and the marriage between an idealist and a materialist—all intersect at a Hertfordshire estate called Howards End. The fate of this beloved country home symbolizes the future of England itself in E. M. Forster’s exploration of social, economic, and philosophical trends, as exemplified by three families: the Schlegels, symbolizing the idealistic and intellectual aspect of the upper classes; the Wilcoxes, representing upper-class pragmatism and materialism; and the Basts, embodying the aspirations of the lower classes. Written in 1910, Howards End won international acclaim for its insightful portrait of English life during the post-Victorian era.