HOWARD'S END is set, for the most part, in London, and revolves around two families: the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes. The Schlegels and the Wilcoxes are separated by class; the Schlegels are a middle class family, comfortable, but definitely not "old money," while the Wilcoxes are far more "to the manor born." Society, at the time HOWARD'S END takes place, dictated that the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes definitely not mix. However, mix they do, with disastrous results.
In the Schlegel family are two sisters, Margaret (Emma Thompson), the older and plainer, and Helen (Helena Bonham-Carter), the younger and more beautiful. We know trouble is brewing when Helen becomes involved, though briefly, with young Paul Wilcox. Of course, the Wilcoxes consider Helen (or any Schlegel, for that matter) to be beneath them, but the affair also distresses the Schlegels as well.
The lives of the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes are destined to be intertwined, however, and Margaret befriends Ruth Wilcox (beautifully played by the always-ethereal Vanessa Redgrave), the mother of young Paul. The lives of the two families become further entwined when Ruth Wilcox dies and leaves her lovely country home, "Howard's End," to her good friend, Margaret. Of course, this doesn't sit at all well with the Wilcoxes, who are truly shocked, and Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins), Ruth's husband, tries to cover up Ruth's final wishes and keep Margaret away from "Howard's End."
But that is far from the end of the story and far from the end of the intertwining of the lives of the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes. In a superb and tragic subplot, both Margaret and Helen attempt to befriend a poor clerk, Leonard Bast (Samuel West) and, without meaning to, cause him to lose his meager job and leave him with no hope for the future.
The conclusion to this film is surprising and explosive, but the beautiful script by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is quite understated and the film, like the book, never slips into melodrama.
This is a period piece that is enhanced by flawless and understated acting from all. Emma Thompson as Margaret Schlegel is superb and she certainly deserved her Oscar for Best Actress for this film. Anthony Hopkins is, of course, flawless and Vanessa Redgrave's performance is subtle and beautifully nuanced. Samuel West, as the tragic Leonard Bast is wonderful as is Helena Bonham-Carter, though she is not the equal, at least in this film, of Thompson.
HOWARD'S END isn't a particularly long book, but this is, at two and one-half hours, quite a long film. The pacing is rather slow and deliberate, but I never got the feeling that things should have been moving along any faster and, for me, at least, the two and one-half hours passed by very quickly. The film holds your interest at all times. HOWARD'S END is a film that contains a bit of everything. While it is tragic, there are times when you laugh or smile, there are times of unsurpassed beauty and there is melancholy and regret aplenty.
I would definitely recommend HOWARD'S END to anyone even remotely interested in period pieces and even to those who aren't. Who knows, you just might find a new genre that you love.