Film Review: Howards End


Howards End makes a gleaming return to cinemas across the UK and remains as crisp and clipped as the perfect diction of its exemplary cast. Thanks to a scintillating 4K restoration, this painterly Merchant-Ivory classic shines ever more brightly on our screens once more.

James Ivory’s adaptation of EM Forster’s 1910 novel is a tale of three families whose trials, tribulations, fates and misfortunes interweave for better and – for the most part – worse over many years. At the top of the pile are the Wilcoxes – Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave) and Henry (Anthony Hopkins), one regal, ethereal and compassionate, the other controlling and quietly tyrannical as a patriarch losing grip upon circumstances beyond his control.

Enamoured of their country retreat – which gives the film its title – and loath to let it slip, a fluttering of heartstrings sees the fate of the Wilcoxes and the Schlegel sisters – firstly Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) and then Margaret (Emma Thompson) – entwined with this great house and rich family. A modern, upper-middle class, and self-sufficient sisterhood, Thompson (who would win an Oscar for her role) and Bonham Carter are terrifically cast opposite one another, the latter showing early signs of the formidable feistiness we have come to love in her performances since.

A chance meeting with Leonard Bast (Samuel West), a down-on-his-luck but other worldly bank clerk, ignites the do-gooder in her character, and though her elder sister may be drawn in to the trappings of wealth, Helen’s principles remain true throughout. It is a film of stark contrasts: philanthropy and ruthlessness, rich and poor, city and countryside, tradition and progression, dreamers and realists, literary imagination and societal restriction. That the force of these contradictions is tempered by stubbornness, secrets and stiff upper lips means that this period piece simmers gently; it is a restrained drama that momentarily releases flashes of suppressed emotion.

Benefiting from a veritable who’s-who of now well established British acting talent, Ivory’s slow release of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Oscar-winning screenplay is poised and patient – and at some stages this pacing does have us crying out for more. Further, though the characterisation is strong and performances uniformly tremendous, Howards End‘s restricted, muted tone could be seen to diminish its resonance for some viewers. However, from the very first images of Ruth Wilcox gliding through the long grass that surrounds the eponymous residence in the twilight of a summer evening there is a richness that can almost be touched and bluebells have never shone so brightly as they do in one particularly eye-catching scene.

There are moments of real humour as well but amid the levity and flowery language there is a coarse, bitter underbelly here which cuts through Tony Pierce-Roberts’ rich cinematography and the sumptuous mise-en-scene that leaves a rather bitter taste in the mouth. From the microcosm of Howards End and those pushed and pulled from this rural idyll, there is a keen message in James Ivory’s film of how we should treat our fellow man. It is an ever-pertinent, wondrous and welcome return to the big screen.

Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens

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