Howards End – tape 1515

This looks like another bit of video piracy, judging by the amount of black screen before the film starts, the lack of any TV idents, and the slightly glitchy quality of the video. I wonder if it’s from the same time I recorded Reservoir Dogs in a hotel?

Howards End always confused me, as I assumed it was based on the Sunday evening BBC serial about yachtmakers.

But no, this is a Merchant Ivory period film about class. Emma Thompson plays Margaret Schlegel, whose younger sister Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) becomes briefly engaged to young Paul Wilcox, whose family owns Howards End. They break it off almost immediately, because the two families aren’t on the same social level.

When the matriarch of the Wilcox family, Ruth, played by Vanessa Redgrave, briefly stays in a flat opposite the Schlegels, Margaret resumes her acquaintance, and Mrs Wilcox is much taken with her (as well she should be, it’s Emma Thompson for heaven’s sake). Margaret tells her that she will soon have to leave her own house, where she has lived since childhood, because the lease runs out in 18 months.

But Ruth is growing ill, and succumbs to her illness.

But she’s written a note, intended to be a will, granting ownership of Howards End to Margaret Schlegel. Hopkins and the rest of the Willcoxes are outraged, and they burn the letter.

Also entering the story is a young man, Leonard Bast (Samuel West) who is a bookkeeper, and rather poorer than the Schlegels. Through a mixup with umbrellas he meets the Schlegels, and they take a shine to him, wanting to help him out. When they meet Mr Wilcox (Hopkins) he gives them the advice that the firm Bast works for is likely to fold before long, so they suggest he finds another post before it happens.

Mr Wilcox has taken a shine to Margaret, and asks her to marry him. His children aren’t happy, especially with the irony that she will, after all, get Howards End herself, as their mother had intended.

Hopkins is truly horrible. On being told that Bast has found another post, at a very reduced salary, he says that his previous employer is actually quite safe now. Young Helen chides him for his poor advice, upset that Bast is now in reduced circumstances because of his advice. Wilcox waves off such sentimentality. “The poor are poor. We feel sorry for them. But there we are.”

At the wedding of Wilcox’s daughter Evie (Jemma Redgrave) Helen Schlegel brings the Basts up from London, having discovered them on the brink of starvation, his new banking position having been downsized.

Things get more embarassing when Mrs Bast recognises Wilcox, having had a fling with him when she was much younger. He’s mortified, and almost breaks off the engagement with Margaret out of shame. But she persuades him it’s in the past.

Helen and Bast become involved, and she then disappears to Europe, losing contact with the family, until she finally returns with the news that she’s pregnant.

The Wilcoxes are the kind of people who demand to know who the father is, so they can sort it out, and when Bast travels to Howards End, where Helen is staying, young Charles Wilcox confronts him, starts beating him with a sword, and drops a bookcase on him. Bast dies, and Charles is convicted of the murder. And the story ends with Mr Wilcox setting his final will, giving Howards End to Margaret on his death, thus she ends up with what she should have had years ago.

This is a fine film, with lots of great performances. Vanessa Redgrave is perfect as the aging matriarch, Emma Thompson is never less than perfect, and Hopkins is born to place these horrendous, puffed up types, consumed with their own importance at the expense of anyone else. I do get frustrated with the appalling lack of humanity of the characters in films like this, but I feel that’s the point of the story. I can’t criticise a film

There’s nothing else on this tape, and definitely no real clues as to the source of this recording. There’s a strange upside down 3 showing faintly in the black that precedes the film, but I’ve no idea what it represents.

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3 comments

  1. I have seen this, but like the protagonist of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity all I can recall is a bookcase falling on Anthony Hopkins.

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