For all its class-studies seriousness and third-act melodramatics, the film — the third E.M. Forster adaptation from director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant — is first of all a charmer. The sublime epigrammatic chatter of its heroines (“One wouldn't want to keep bumping into Wilcoxes!”) is an unpoisoned precedent for Love & Friendship's Lady Susan, and somehow, back at the dawn of the first Clinton era, the thought of two progressive sisters being the center of a top-shelf awards-season prestige picture didn't seem like a brave step forward, as it might today. Neither did the moment when Helena Bonham Carter's Helen, a brilliantly unreasonable young woman who comes to take each of the world's injustices personally, shuts down Anthony Hopkins' stuffed-shirt patriarch just as his mansplaining starts. “Word of advice,” his Henry Wilcox says, more toward her than to her, but Helen is already snapping back: “I need no word of advice!” The way her extravagant brows knit up, you'd hush, too, even if she weren’t already hauling herself out of earshot. In '92 it was possible, I guess, to expect that such stories and such moments would not continue to be Hollywood's exceptions.
Ivory only occasionally indulges in the production-value pageantry that’s so often characteristic of the genre. An early scene set in a garage has Bonham Carter and Joseph Bennett calling off their characters' love affair while posing about a gleaming antique roadster, as if some exec vowed, "If we're not giving American men nudity, we must at least give them cars." But there's little leaden or parade-like, here.
The superior first half is given over to lively incident rather than plot, with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's script — adapted from Forster’s 1910 novel — reeling through gently comic episodes and never quite making clear just who its protagonist is until the second act. First, in the country, a middle-class young woman (Bonham Carter) falls for the scion of the Wilcoxes, a haughty, somewhat constipated land-owning family, the sort of swells who always look as if they smell a stink people poorer than them can't. Then, a little embarrassed, Bonham Carter's Helen just calls the whole thing off. Months later, in London, she accidentally makes off with a broke clerk's umbrella, which results in much amusing to-do, and the clerk — Leonard Bast (Samuel West) — demurs an invitation to tea after being “swamped by screaming women.”
These are the Schlegels, played by Emma Thompson — the elder sister, and the one who wryly speaks that swamped line — and Bonham Carter. Thompson's Margaret stars in the next vignette, a tender idyll: When the Wilcoxes move into London for the season, occupying a flat just across the way, Margaret strikes up a surprising friendship with Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave), the family's ailing grand dame and the wife of Hopkins' Henry, representing in Forster's scheme an idea of how women used to be before the minor liberations of the Edwardian age. Margaret slows her talk down when alone with Ruth, but she never tempers herself — and she's much too nice to object when Ruth admits, at a lively luncheon, “I am only too thankful not to have the vote myself.”
Redgrave's performance is a slow heartbreaker — Ruth yearns for simpler times, but only finds true kinship with someone unrelated to and unlike her. Thompson beams at Redgrave, her Margaret touched and troubled but also stirred. All Ruth's talk of domesticity — of the empty, unfashionable family home Howards End — awakens a longing in Margaret, a subtly revealed certainty that Helen's life of London lectures and discussion societies isn't all that she wants. (Thompson won an Oscar for her role.)
If you've not seen the film or read the novel, you might be jolted, several scenes after Ruth's death, at widower Henry Wilcox's awkward, out-of-nowhere marriage proposal to Margaret — and at her stunned acceptance. Rather than say yes, she tells him to write to her and backs slowly down the staircase away from him. Then, when he's gotten the wrong idea, she lets him approach and mushes her face to his for one of cinema's most strained smooches. The question of whether she loves him is never quite answered in the film, although the cautious warmth in later scenes between Thompson and Hopkins suggests that Margaret is getting more from the arrangement than wealth and stability.
Thompson is brilliant in some third-act confrontations with Hopkins, showing us how Margaret struggles to be the Schlegel she was and the Wilcox she's becoming — and how she has learned to anticipate and manage his moods and upper-class prejudices. She reveals, with the faintest hint of desperation, what Margaret has lost, but also that she hasn't sacrificed her strength, conviction, or even her independence.
Helen, meanwhile, evolves offscreen, mostly, and we're not privy to her moment-to-moment thinking the way we are to Margaret's. Helen grows ever more rash and angry, lashing out at Henry in ways viewers might find satisfying. But she's stuck with the mother of all do-gooding naïf storylines, first advising that poor clerk to quit his job based on a tip from Henry, and then, when that advice proves terrible, dragging the clerk (and the older woman, played by Nicola Duffett, whom he charitably passes off as his wife) around England with her as she demands that Henry, soon to be her brother-in-law, make some kind of amends.
Just like real-life poor folks, Bast and his lady friend are not doing better than they were in '92. An early scene between them is straight-up terrible: She's the kind of fallen woman who, 30 years before Forster was writing, Victorian novelists would have packed off to Australia. In her first appearance, she tries to entice Leonard to bed with her, but the romantic young man — smitten with Helen, whom he just met via the umbrella imbroglio — insists on reading instead, as he's committed to improving herself. Eventually she prevails, but Ivory plays this capitulation as somehow tragic. One of the story’s most moving aspects is Margaret's ahead-of-her-time understanding that a sexual history doesn't damn a person. The most dated — and disappointing — failing of this Howards End is that every coupling it depicts or alludes to seems to strike the filmmakers as evidence of weakness rather than passion.
Still, though: The film remains an enticing, elegant pleasure, alive with light and talk. A recurring image throughout it is that of a lonely person gazing through a window, inside or out, at people on the other side enjoying fellowship and warmth — that's what watching this often feels like, especially in those rich, loose early episodes.