Film and TV

Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave and James Ivory on the Enduring Power of Howards End

Don’t ever make the mistake of dismissing James Ivory’s E.M. Forster adaptation Howards End as a mere “costume drama.” Yes, the characters wear corsets and evening suits and talk through manners and inheritance. But in its own way, Ivory’s film — which has been newly restored and is being re-released, ahead of its 25th anniversary — has more to say about class, love and marriage than many other contemporary (and purportedly edgier) movies. And it’s hard not to feel like Howards End represents a kind of filmmaking that we’ve since lost — well-written, nuanced and filled with complex roles, many of them for women. We recently discussed the 1992 Oscar winner with Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompson and director James Ivory.

When you watch something like this, after all these years, do you experience it as a film, or as a memory? Do you see yourself up there, or do you see the character?

Vanessa Redgrave: I can’t generalize, but in the case of Howards End, it’s taken on its own life. I can remember the filming of some of the scenes, and of course I know Emma even better now than I did at the time. But for me it’s already taken on a kind of truth. I’m not seeing it as “That’s me up there.” I’m seeing it as Mrs. Wilcox up there. I believe in all these people that I’m seeing and getting totally involved.

What were the biggest challenges in adapting a novel like this?

James Ivory: Probably the biggest challenge Ruth Jhabvala had was to boil it all down to a size where you could tell the story in roughly two hours; the film wound up being 2 hours and 20 minutes. Luckily, Ruth had another Forster novel to practice on, Room with a View, which she did terribly well also. But she herself was an absolutely marvelous fiction writer and novelist. She also found that the book had its flaws. For example, Forster wasn’t really much at home with the working-class characters of Leonard Bast and Jacky Bast. They weren’t the kinds of people that he would have known, or had real feelings for. His feelings were all for the upper-middle-class educated types that mainly make up the book — although you can’t say the Wilcoxes are educated in quite the same way that the Schlegels are. Ruth felt that Leonard and Jacky had to be given a kind of boost. Since they’re really the pivot that the whole story turns on in a way, they had to be made much more interesting and touching as people.

Emma Thompson: What was interesting was the things you could afford to leave out. One of the most famous scenes in the book is when my character Margaret is talking to her sister Helen [played by Helena Bonham Carter] about connecting — that’s the “only connect” line that everyone quotes ad nauseam — and Jim was absolutely determined to get it in the movie. It was a scene of two people talking, so we could do it absolutely anywhere. But we were always on the run to try and get the film finished, and we kept on putting it off and putting it off. Finally, we got to a day when we could do it, and we shot it, and Jim was terribly, terribly happy ... and then he cut it from the finished film! [Laughs] You’d seen the idea already represented in some ways that’s not conveyable in a novel. You didn’t need her to say it as well.

Emma, I believe you actually wrote a letter to James Ivory asking him to consider you for the part of Margaret?

Thompson: Yes, it was the only time I’ve ever written to the director. I knew the book very well, and I knew her, and I said, “Listen, please take me seriously, because I do know how to play this woman.” And luckily for me, they did. It was only my fifth movie. It was quite new to me, this kind of experience.

Ivory: If somebody struck me as being right, and I liked their personality and appearance, I never worried about taking a risk with anyone. When Emma came to see me, she didn’t read from the script — she read straight from the novel. And I just mentally cast her on the spot. I said, “I have my Margaret now.” It was her first really major big-screen part. She had appeared in a couple of films before that. After we were finished, she said, “You know, I know I will probably never have such a good part again.” And she won an Oscar for it.

I’m intrigued by the transformation of Margaret Schlegel over the course of the film. At first, she’s vivacious, chatty — quite a sharp contrast with Mrs. Wilcox.

Redgrave: Emma’s character observes the fact at a certain point that they all talk too much, dissecting everything and analyzing everything, putting them down. But you’ll notice that as she encounters problems in the relationship with a man she loves, she becomes slower, more thoughtful. And you get even more interested in what she’s going to say, and how she’s going to react. Those scenes between Emma and Tony [Hopkins, who plays Henry Wilcox] are extraordinary. That’s something that happens — things become more considered, the tempo becomes slower. And although Mrs. Wilcox was a very different woman, there is a connection between them after all, which is that Mrs. Wilcox also loved this man, and Emma’s character loves this man. And he’s not at first sight the kind of man that you think an enlightened woman would want to know.

There are hints along the way to this transformation, but by the end, Margaret has turned into Mrs. Wilcox, in a way. The film begins and ends with a quiet woman: The opening scene is Ruth Wilcox walking through her garden quietly. In the final scene, Margaret barely says a word. We don’t quite get the sense that she’s lost her soul, but we feel like something has been lost, even if we don’t quite know what it is.

Thompson: That’s well put. You don’t quite know what it is, but it’s something, surely. Maybe it’s something because there wasn’t anything for her at that time. Where would she have gone? What would she have done? There’s a very, very good book by George Gissing, called The Odd Women, which is about women who tried to be independent at that time, and the difficulties that they got in, and how ostracized they were. They were true outsiders. And we forget that. Forster’s one of the greatest writers for women — just an extraordinary proto-feminist, really. It’s a most remarkable book, and his understanding of the trap that women were in, this curious relationship between the Wilcoxes and Margaret — it’s just so beautifully drawn.

Howards End, and Merchant Ivory films in general, provided many great opportunities for actresses. But even back then, it seemed like there was a dearth of good parts for women in movies. Can we say the situation has gotten even worse?

Thompson: The commodification of everything just got worse and worse. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the market — capitalism — has been allowed to absolutely run wild. That’s got something to do with it, in the sense that having been through a phase of acknowledging that money isn’t everything, we’ve now gone to a phase where money is literally everything. Everything. It’s astonishing what’s happened in the last 30 years, honestly. And I think the film industry has fallen prey to that kind of model, as has the music industry. People in the theater world will tell you the same thing. It’s all about how we turn a profit. The releasing of this monstrous side of capitalism has had such a deleterious effect on so many aspects of our society.

Merchant Ivory turned three of E.M. Forster’s novels into films: A Room with a View, Maurice and finally Howards End. But it seems like a weird trick of historical fate that you weren’t the ones to film A Passage to India, given both your interest in Forster and the fact that so many of your other films actually take place in India.

Ivory: Let me tell you what happened. Forster didn’t want anybody to make his books into films, and said no all his life. And he said no to Satyajit Ray, who wanted to film A Passage to India. In fact, Ismail [Merchant] was going to produce it, and they went so far that they were thinking about casting Vanessa as the lead. Ray went to England, and met with Forster, and went up to Cambridge and brought one or two of his films — from, I think, the Apu Trilogy — to show. And Forster said, “Yes, they’re wonderful,” but he still refused to let it be made into a movie even though it had been a play and had been on television.

Time passed, and eventually he died. Then, King’s College in Cambridge, who had the rights to those books, decided there were lots of people who wanted to make those films, and decided to get in touch with them. They got in touch with us. But we’d made Heat and Dust, which was our British Raj film set in the 1920s. At this point, what we really wanted to do was A Room with a View. And they said, “What? That little book?” So we got the rights to A Room with a View. And David Lean made A Passage to India.

Howards End feels like the flip side of Room with a View. The earlier film is all about following your passion. Howards End is the opposite — it’s about a woman who learns to settle with and love a man who, in many senses, doesn’t deserve her. Even the opening scenes seem to comment on one another: In A Room with a View, we have characters looking out a window in bright sunlight. The first scene of Howards End is Mrs. Wilcox outside, looking through a window and into a house at dusk. Was that planned?

Ivory: Not by me. A lot of what you do when you make a film is momentary. These things don’t usually jump into your mind, already made. They’re born out of the basic scene, and the facts of the location that you’re on, and what time of day it is, and all those kinds of things. What is the place? Where are the windows? Who’s outside and who’s inside? Of course, in A Room with a View, a window without a view is a big deal. And Howards End concerns a house. So maybe it’s just something in the air.

Did it take long to find the house that would be Howards End, since it figures so importantly in the story?

Ivory: We actually found it quite quickly. We knew more or less what we wanted. We didn’t want some grand English country house; these were essentially middle-class people. The production designer had some friends who she felt had the right house. And there was a big meadow right in front of it, which was called for in the movie. It was basically an enlarged farmhouse. The kind of house that Forster himself had lived in as a man, up until he was 40 or so. I can’t remember if we even looked at other houses. When our Japanese investors came along to see it, they were shocked. “What is this little brick farmhouse? This isn’t what we imagined!” They had thought we were going to shoot in some grand country house. They were startled at the insignificant look of it. But that’s what the story called for.

Something I’ve always been curious about: the very first note on the soundtrack, which always takes me by surprise. It’s a huge musical crash, and it’s the loudest thing in the whole movie — right there at the beginning.

Ivory: I wasn’t entirely happy with that for technical reasons. I didn’t want to fight with the composer, and he wanted it, so I went with it. But after the film was done, sometimes I’d attend a screening to talk about it or something. And very often, the projectionist, hearing that one huge note, thought that he had the sound turned up too high, so he would turn it down. And then everything would be too low — the dialogue, the effects, the rest of the music, everything. It’s plagued me all those years. At Cannes we sent a message in to the projectionist telling them not to turn down the sound. I still am very nervous about it. It’s a great piece of music, but it brings problems with it.

What was it like seeing the film again after all these years?

Redgrave: I was astounded. Of course I had thought it was brilliant before. I saw it for the first time in Cannes, whatever year that was when we first showed it. Now, after seeing it for the second time, I didn’t want to speak to anybody afterwards. Of course I had to, because otherwise it would have been rude. But I didn’t really, truly want to — because I was just filled with a mixture of admiration and of angst. I was awestruck by the level of work.
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