Based on the novel by E.M. Forster, set in turn of the century London there are three families, each representing a different rank within social classes. The film mainly concerns the Schlegel family, consisting of sisters Margaret (Emma Thompson), Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) and brother Tibby (Adrian Ross Magenty). They’re middle class and quite liberal, dabbling in a bit of philanthropy and enjoying arts and literature. One summer, Helen was visiting the Wilcox’s estate and had an embarrassing fling with one of their sons. After quickly snuffing it out, hoping everyone could just forget about it, the Schlegel family go on damage control, trying to avoid the high class Wilcoxes.
But to no avail, when the Wilcox family rents a flat just across from the Schlegel home. Concerned that the close proximity could cause some tensions, Margaret visits Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave) and befriends her as her health declines. Their conversations turn to the fact that the Schlegel house will soon be demolished to build yet another apartment building. Margaret is very calm about the subject, but Ruth is saddened for her. Ruth’s dying wish is to leave her family’s home, Howard’s End, to Margaret.
Unfortunately, with that wish only in pencil and not legally binding, Ruth’s husband Henry (Anthony Hopkins) and their children decide to ignore it. Yet, Margaret has worked her way into the Wilcox family and soon Henry asks her to marry him.
While Margaret is getting closer to the high class Wilcoxes, Helen has taken an interest in a poor working class man and his fiancé. She first meets Leonard Bast (Samuel West) at a lecture on Beethoven and is immediately excited to find someone else who enjoys the arts. Helen tries to encourage Leonard’s romantic ideas and hobbies, like astronomy, but in the end some bad advice causes him to lose everything and Helen feels responsible.
Thompson’s performance as Margaret is astounding. As the central character in the story, she’s pulled in all directions, from high class with Henry and Ruth, down to the low with Helen and poor Leonard. But with such poise and charisma, she’s always the level headed one, even when things are crumbling around her. It’s this strong, versatile role that Thompson executes with ease that earned her the Oscar for Best Actress.
I have not read the novel, but I’ve heard that the film does it justice, so if you are interested in a film adaptation, I would recommend Howard’s End. If you enjoy Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter or Anthony Hopkins, their performances are a treat and would also recommend this film for you. But if social class dramas in turn of the century England sounds boring to you, you’ll probably be a little bored.
“The poor are the poor, and one’s sorry for them – but there it is.”