Howards End

English Title: Howards End

Country of Origin: Britain

Studio: Merchant Ivory/Mayfair Entertainment

Director: James Ivory

Producer(s): Ismail Merchant

Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Cinematographer: Tony Pierce-Roberts

Editor: Andrew Marcus

Runtime: 142 minutes

Genre: Heritage

Language: English

Starring/Cast: Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter

Year: 1992

Volume: British


In Edwardian London, the liberal and independent Margaret Schlegel strikes up a friendship with Mrs Wilcox, the wife of a wealthy industrialist, after Margaret’s sister, Helen, has a fleeting affair with Mrs Wilcox’s youngest son at Howards End, the family country retreat. When Mrs Wilcox dies and unexpectedly leaves Howards End to Margaret, the Wilcoxes destroy the evidence of the bequest. Widower Henry Wilcox proposes to Margaret, much to the dismay of his eldest son and daughter, who see Margaret as a social climber. Helen resents Henry, considering him responsible for the precarious situation of Leonard Bast, an impoverished but socially-striving clerk whom the sisters had befriended. When revelations entangle Leonard and his wife Jacky more deeply with the Schlegels and Wilcoxes, Margaret confronts Henry with his class prejudices. The characters’ fates dramatically converge at Howards End, with tragic consequences.


Epitomizing the English ‘phase’ of Merchant Ivory’s cosmopolitan output, Howards End was the most commercially and critically successful of a series of tasteful literary adaptations throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Novelist EM Forster became central to the heritage canon with no less than five of his works adapted for the screen, including A Room with a View (1985) and Maurice (1987), both directed by James Ivory. In a fragmented industry heavily dependant on overseas box-office, Howards End became associated with a new quality British cinema with the potential for international crossover success. After high-profile exposure at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival and three Oscar Awards (including Best Actress to Emma Thompson) the film secured worldwide distribution and became a modest hit in America.

Andrew Higson (2003) noted that Howards End could be considered ‘a pictorial signifier of everything that the heritage industry represented’, namely the commodification of the English historical past and the embracing of conservative values during the Thatcher years. For critics like Higson and John Hill (1999), Howards End shows a tension between its liberal critique of class barriers and the spectacular aesthetics of period reconstruction. Lavishly photographed in widescreen and with a rich mise-en-scène, the look of the film is suffused with a gentle nostalgia for Edwardian upper-class lifestyles. Pre-WWI England is a society in flux, but the country retreat that draws the emancipated yet deracinated Schlegels is visualized as a rural haven. Placid long shots and languid camera movements – such as the memorably slow tracking shots that follow Mrs Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave) in the tone-setting opening scene – provide a sense of stability and reassurance.
Higson also pointed out the multiplicity of discourses surrounding the film. It could be regarded as bound to museum aesthetics, with the camera levelling admiringly at the material splendour of property and objects, encouraging a touristic gaze. However, Howards End can equally be read as an ambiguous class melodrama with nuanced performances, in which the family house evokes class dispossession and inheritance disputes. The Wilcoxes’ standing as a rising financial class in pursuit of the accumulation of property (a theme all too resonant at the peak of the Thatcherite period) is a counterpoint to the focus on emotions attached to the loss of a home – or the lack of one – that join the ‘New Woman’ Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson) and the almost Victorian Mrs Wilcox. Howards End, the idealized family home, also becomes the setting for an act of absurd violence that reveals a social order closing ranks against class interlopers.

The film's themes emerge from its mise-en-scène as well as from the display of property that make its concerns seem resolutely bourgeois. Yet, to evoke François Truffaut's famous phrase with regard to the context of post-war French cinema, Howards End encapsulates that ‘certain tendency’ of quality adaptations. It sank so deeply into the consciousness of British cinema to create a distinctive aesthetic and even motivate affectionate parody, as in Love and Death on Long Island (Richard Kwietniowski, 1997) and Stiff Upper Lips (Gary Sinyor, 1998). 

Author of this review: Belén Vidal

Peer reviewer: Belén Vidal