A businessman thwarts his wife's bequest of an estate to another woman.
It was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning three, and yet I’m walking away from Howards End thinking, “Really?” On the one hand this seems like classic Oscar-bait with a loaded cast guaranteed to bring home the gold. But on the other, I can’t help but think if this is either: A) the wrong medium to tell the story, or B) I will never be the target audience this film was intended for.
Adaptations from the stage have been known to grind my gears, usually because they fail to adapt, what I consider adequately, to the film medium. Howards End feels similar, though it is adapted from E. M. Forster’s novel from 1910. A lot of the executions, from the title cards to indicated passage of time, to the very chapter-like pacing scene-to-scene where you really only stay at one location until it’s time to move to the next. Just how I don’t like stage plays that are basically filmed to become a movie, I don’t like how Howards End is basically a novel-made-visually.
This also ties in to the second point I mentioned above where I might never be the target audience. As the Wikipedia page points out, Howards End takes place in Edwardian Britain (late 1800s, early 1900s) which is quite posh and proper. Even “the poors”, represented in the film by Leonard Bast (Samuel West) and his wife Jacky (Nicola Duffet), are seen dressed in well-tailored clothes and Leonard —- before quitting, then subsequently getting laid off – works what appears to be a decent job in quite a lavish building. So I must really be missing something here, because the plot summaries and movie reviews all commend the themes of the story – “class, wealth, family, hypocrisy and real estate,” (this nice list grabbed from Roger Ebert’s review). How does it handle these themes well when the poor appear to be akin to a middle class family? They’re shown to be struggling at various parts of the film – they arrive at a wedding not having eaten for several days because they can’t afford food – but they don’t look emaciated. If I wasn’t constantly told the Bast’s were struggling, I’d have no way of knowing it with the sole exception of their living quarters located adjacent to a very loud train.
To me, Howards End really seems ill-conceived for film. Miniseries, okay. TV show, sure. Novel, probably a classic and wonderful read (for those who like classics). As a film however, low marks. There’s just too much going on here: the aforementioned Leonard Bast storyline, Helen Schlegel’s (Helena Bonham Carter) five-minute engagement to Paul Wilcox (Joseph Bennett) – sidebar: apparently in Edwardian Britain, snogging for one night in the woods counts as an engagement – Helen Schlegel (Emma Thompson) befriending Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave), and then finally, the titular storyline, Howards End, which is a house that Ruth bequeaths to Helen but which Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins) ignores to keep the house in the family.
It’s just too much. Not too much in the sense it is overwhelming and you get confused about it, but too much in the sense that it seems contrived. Despite all this drama, I never really connected with the characters. And while I could see the themes from a mile away (which I could never do when reading novels like these in high school), the themes made no sense. The poor seemed well-off (though I know they weren’t) and while the hatred towards them was extremely obvious, because I didn’t connect with the characters I really felt little to no empathy towards Leonard and Jacky Bast.
Given all the glowing reviews it is more than likely I’m missing something. But even after reading a few, I came away nodding my head along with the review, “Yep, I get that. I remember that from the film. Mhmmm,” but still not seeing how it matched up to enjoyment. Your mileage may vary, but I’d give Howards End a hard pass.
2 out of 5