Monday, June 8, 2020

Forsterland: Howards End

Matthew Macfadyen and Hayley Atwell in the BBC's Howards End (2017).

I approached the 2017 BBC adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End, which landed on Masterpiece Theatre last season, with some trepidation, just as I did the 1992 Merchant Ivory movie version. That’s because I’m in thrall to the book; which is one of my half-dozen favorite novels in the world. In it, as in his A Passage to India (published in 1924), the form of the Victorian novel collides, brilliantly but lingeringly, with the twentieth century. Howards End is beautifully constructed, but it isn’t a mechanical triumph like the great works of Forster’s predecessors (Dickens, Eliot, Hardy) that it takes off from. Forster gets himself into perilous territory – into issues he can’t bring into harmony in the final pages. And the book is, I think, more immense, more moving and of course more modern, because he can’t. It begins as a Jane Austenesque high comedy. Helen Schlegel, the impetuous younger daughter of a German-English family, goes off on a country weekend and falls in love with the younger son of her hosts, Ruth and Henry Wilcox. At least she thinks she has; in fact, it’s the whole Wilcox family she’s enamored with, and Paul, she realizes almost immediately, is just the convenient outlet for her unaccustomed feelings. Helen, her older sister Margaret and her kid brother Tibby – orphans – form a throbbing intellectual enclave that interacts with the world in an entirely different way from the Wilcoxes, who belong to the new business aristocracy, and Helen is fascinated by their style at first. Margaret explains the real difference to Helen:
The truth is that there is a great outer life that you and I have never touched – a life in which telegrams and anger count. Personal relations, that we think supreme, are not supreme there. There love means marriage settlements, death, death duties. So far I’m clear. But here’s my difficulty. This outer life, though obviously horrid, often seems the real one – there’s grit in it. It does breed character.
In the embarrassing aftermath of the momentary romantic tangle between Helen and Paul, Helen loses her quickly formed affection for the Wilcox world and shrinks in revulsion from their unpoetic pragmatism. But then, unexpectedly, Henry Wilcox rents the London house across the way from the Schlegels’, and Margaret finds herself drawn to the family – through Ruth, who, in her last months, forms an attachment to her that exerts an extraordinary influence on the younger woman.

The business side of the Wilcoxes is represented by Henry; Ruth is an entirely different sort of creature. Forster introduces her “trailing noiselessly over the lawn, and there was actually a wisp of hay in her hands. She seemed to belong not to the young people and their motor, but to the house, and to the tree that overshadowed it. One knew that she worshipped the past, and that the instinctive wisdom the past can alone bestow had descended upon her . . .” A little later he writes, “Clever talk alarmed her, and withered her delicate imaginings; it was the social counterpart of a motor-car, all jerks, and she was a wisp of hay, a flower.” The house she belongs to is Howards End, the Wilcoxes’ home in the country. She wants to show it to Margaret and never manages to – she dies before she can – but she imbues her younger friend with her mystical love for it, and, appalled to learn that the Schlegels are losing their own (the lease has expired), she tries to will Howard’s End to Margaret on her deathbed. (The Wilcoxes override her wish, which seems to them cruel and incomprehensible, and Margaret doesn’t even learn of it until years later.)

When Forster writes, “[T]here was actually a wisp of hay in her hands,” he isn’t being flippant or satirical. Mrs. Wilcox amazes him; she’s beyond his ken, and he’s drawn to her as Margaret is, to the fact that “with each word she spoke the outlines of known things grew dim” – just as he’s drawn to mysterious old Mrs. Moore in A Passage to India. And these are his most marvelous characters: they hover over their respective novels like ghosts. Forster’s project, if you like to put it this way, was to work toward reconciling the irreconcilable – east and west, psychology and mysticism (and, in his own style, irony and mystery) in A Passage to India, and in Howards End romanticism and modernism, and the worlds of Margaret Schlegel and Henry Wilcox. Like another unforgettable character in the literature of the early twentieth century, Mrs. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Ruth Wilcox is a bafflingly beautiful remnant of the romantic past still alive in the twentieth century, and Forster is mesmerized by her.

In this and in other things, Forster lets Margaret stand in for him. She’s the great mediator, the great reconciler. When she falls in love with Henry, she tries to mediate between him and her revolted sister; when his thoughtlessly proffered financial counsel ruins Leonard Bast, a dreamy young clerk the Schlegels want to help, she tries to close the gap Henry has carved between his actions and their implications – to make him understand the notion of personal responsibility. The famous “only connect” in the novel is the “rainbow bridge” Margaret longs to erect between “the prose in us” and “the passion” – between prosaic Henry, who adores her (as he adored Ruth) but gets by without expressing it, “improvising emotion”; between words and their meaning; between deeds and their consequences. Forster rigs the connection, ultimately; tragedy brings Henry in touch with the chain of consequences he’s denied all his life. In the end you see the reconciliation between the strands of the novel (including plot strands – Forster is very canny about all the ways in which we make connections) more than you feel them – partly, I think, because you can’t quite make Henry Wilcox and Margaret Schlegel fit together in your head. What you do feel is the exhilaration of the moving of mountains the author has gone through to bring these two worlds in tandem – if not precisely in harmony – with each other. Howards End is a powerful, beautiful, unresolvable book.

Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in Howards End (1992)

How much of this gets into the movie written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and directed by James Ivory? Some – more than I would have expected for collaborators who generally had a Great Books approach to adaptation and who were more high-culture consumers than filmmakers. (Jhabvala died in 2013.) Predictably, the political material – which focuses on the tension between the Schlegel sisters’ urge to help poetic, lost, insolvent Leonard and Henry’s caveat, “The poor are the poor.  One feels sorry for them, but that’s all” – is given the bum’s rush. But Ivory does a remarkably skillful job of suggesting the milieux (with the expert assistance of his production designer, Luciana Arrighi); the wonderful old English houses feel inhabited. He gets the comedy of the Schlegels’ messy, companionable existence from the beginning, and in the scene where Leonard (Samuel West) visits them for the first time and the zealous intellectuality and instant intimacy of Margaret (Emma Thompson) and Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) frighten him off, that comedy nearly explodes. These scenes are the loosest work Ivory’s ever done.

The storytelling in the Merchant Ivory pictures normally feels scrappy and strained, but here the wedges of plot slip pleasantly into place. When Ivory films a moment where Margaret glimpses Henry (Anthony Hopkins) and Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave)), newly ensconced next door, through the window – a moment that doesn’t occur in the book – he’s thinking like a director, maybe for the first time: he’s planting the link that will eventually lead Margaret to Henry, through Ruth. He’s thinking of ways to deal with the part of the novel that appears the most difficult to dramatize plausibly – the union of these two characters. In the book, we lose track of the fact that Margaret comes to Henry through a love of the idea of the Wilcoxes, which is how Helen came to think she loved Paul. We lose track of it because it’s a strategy; it’s not convincing.

Redgrave is in the movie for only forty minutes or so, but she’s truly great. It’s clear that Howards End is the last piece of the earth Mrs. Wilcox is clinging to – that, and (somehow) Margaret. When Redgrave and Thompson, actresses from different generations, are on screen together, the English classical tradition seems more magnificent than ever before. You see how Margaret is mystified and moved by the freedom of Ruth’s emotion; you see the younger woman working out how to seize this opportunity to get close to the older one, who, Margaret senses, is of rare value. (Margaret’s first choice – to invite Mrs. Wilcox to a luncheon with some of her intellectual friends – is a fiasco, but understanding why brings Margaret to a finer appreciation of Ruth, and leads to greater intimacy.) When these two women, one on the brink of leaving this world, the other briskly, warmly efficient in it, go about London together, their bond seems magical. And Ruth lifts the great mantle of her life – Howards End – on Margaret, though Margaret scarcely realizes it at the time.

The movie can’t fully recover from Redgrave’s early exit, but Emma Thompson’s performance becomes more and more astonishing. She has some of Redgrave’s genius at embodying the environment of the characters she plays: as Margaret, she has a slightly scrambled concentration and a tipped-head attentiveness that feel peculiarly ideal for a woman in Edwardian England whose education and principles engage her with her society in a way in which most women were not engaged. It would be too reductive to call Margaret a proto-feminist, though (certainly unlike Ruth) she’s pro-suffrage; she’s more complicated than that. And Thompson gets all of her complications. She shows us, in ways that are hard to pin down, how her connection with Ruth Wilcox alters her, the strength and purity of her emotions transforming Margaret’s still-tentative inner life. She becomes airier, more lithe, and, if there’s such a quality, more spiritually graceful. (It sounds completely plausible when, late in the movie, as Margaret finally makes it to Howard’s End, an aging local who has been fixing up the house in the family’s absence remarks that, startled by Margaret’s sudden appearance, she thought she was actually seeing Ruth Wilcox.) Thompson’s performance, quicksilver-comic at the beginning – comic in the Shakespearean sense as well as high-comic – acquires a beautiful gravity in the middle of the scene where Henry proposes to her, on the stairs inside the absurdly baroque ancestral home he leads her through. (This isn’t, of course, the house she belongs in; the story must lead us back to Howards End.) Once she becomes Mrs. Wilcox in name, Margaret has found her role, and Thompson begins to glow. The most extraordinary thing about the performance is the way Margaret grows into Ruth without ceasing to be herself – the way she learns to let her feelings about people lead her intellectual reservations (that’s what happens with Henry: the proposal scene, where Margaret’s nervousness smooths out into an affirmation of his affection when she kisses him, is perhaps Thompson’s finest moment), the way she adopts Redgrave’s serene, flowing, Victorian walk – the walk that opens the picture.

Joseph Quinn in Howards End (2017).

When I saw Ivory’s movie for the first time nearly three decades ago I hoped it would get down enough of Forster’s book to justify its having been made, which his version of Henry James’s The Bostonians hadn’t in 1984 (Redgrave’s performance in that movie turned out to be its raison d’être) and which his film of James’s The Golden Bowl wouldn’t in 2000. But despite its flaws, Howards End turned out to be a lovely movie, and through the actors – including Anthony Hopkins and Helena Bonham Carter and Samuel West – it wound up adding grace notes to the novel. The four-hour BBC adaptation by Kenneth Lonergan, directed by Hettie Macdonald, is, by contrast, rather literal and quite ordinary, though it contains one sensational performance and it does get better as it goes along. Visually it’s pallid; it has plenty of the usual Masterpiece Theatre pictorial country landscapes, but Luke Hull’s production design is unexceptional and the costumes by Sheena Napier are markedly unappealing. (They also betray an inadequate budget: for women of means, the Schlegel sisters have an oddly restricted wardrobe, including – at least until Margaret marries Henry Wilcox – one ugly hat apiece.) You don’t get any sense of the Schlegel siblings’ bohemianism (unless you want to count those damn hats) – what Henry Wilcox’s son Charles (Joe Bannister), who’s like a dunderheaded copy of his father, refers to as their “artistic beastliness.”  And most of the casting seems dead wrong. Hayley Atwell plays Margaret, and though I thought she was first-rate as Rebecca West in last summer’s West End revival of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, where she also played a left-leaning young woman, here she has a stiff-spined, schoolmistressy quality that I found uncongenial. She conveys none of Margaret’s charm or humor and little of the idea that she’s discovering life as she lives it. It isn’t until Henry proposes to her that Atwell’s Margaret unwinds and we see her engaging emotionally with him; up until that point there’s no evidence that she finds anything in him to admire, let alone to love. Philippa Coulthard plays Helen as if she were the heroine of a conventional young adult novel. Helen is the character who behaves most radically by the lights of Edwardian society, and even those who love her, like her siblings, admit (repeatedly) that she’s odd, but there’s nothing remotely odd about Coulthard’s representation of her. And since she has limited acting resources she plays one scene after another the same way. When she took the role Bonham Carter used her dark, slightly spoiled Spanish beauty for comedy; her mouth always seemed to be open, in sensual anticipation. In this version you don’t believe anything the narrative tells us about Helen’s behavior except that it’s impulsive. In the movie Samuel West gives the ill-starred Leonard Bast a playful quality and even makes him conscious of his own ridiculousness in a way that lightens him up a little; Joseph Quinn turns him into a colorless tragic hero. That isn’t entirely his fault; the adaptors seem to want us to see him that way, with Helen, who reaches out to him, as the girl he should have married if he’d met her earlier and there were no class system to separate them.

The glorious exception is Matthew Macfadyen as Henry Wilcox. In the movie Hopkins goes pretty far toward making sense of Margaret’s attraction to Henry: he gives him a lot of warmth and makes his moral obtuseness as comic as he can get away with. There’s an early scene where Margaret, having turned down Ruth’s on-the-spot invitation to accompany her to Howard’s End, reconsiders and joins her at the train station at the last moment; but, unexpectedly, Henry appears with their daughter, just returned to London, and he whisks his wife home. His attitude toward Ruth is not merely tolerant, but lovingly tolerant, concerned, solicitous; he seems to intercept her emotional field – to replace Margaret in it – by wrapping her up in his husbandly attention to her failing health. He listens to her without quite hearing what she says, or perhaps just without quite comprehending it, or comprehending the spirit behind it. As Hopkins plays him, Henry’s flaw is that he doesn’t acknowledge that there’s a world that he’s not clued into, but what the actor makes clear is that he adores what he doesn’t know he doesn’t understand. And that combination of love and condescension is the same one he extends to Margaret when he’s married to her.

We’re drawn to Macfadyen’s Henry at first because he’s charismatic and almost impossibly handsome, like a slightly aged version of a swashbuckler hero, and then, on quite a different level, when we see the depth of his grief at Ruth’s funeral. His Henry has a capacity for merriment and joy that Hopkins doesn’t give the character; his Henry is more an appreciator than a purveyor of those things. Chiefly what makes him different from Hopkins, though, is the last thing we’re prepared for in Henry – a sort of innocence despite his bustling efficiency with anything that involves money or property or influence. When Henry and Margaret have become engaged and he wants her to break up her vacation with her sister and their Aunt Juley (Tracey Ullman, in a delightful cameo) to take her with him back to London, she refuses because she doesn’t want to disappoint the old lady, who looks forward to this annual trip with her nieces. But he insists on speaking to Aunt Juley alone, over Margaret’s objections, and then, reaching out to touch his fiancée gingerly, he tells her smilingly, “I did the breaking of the ice.” It would certainly be a mistake to play that moment as macho bullying, but most actors would portray it as patriarchal manipulation. Of course that’s what it is, but Macfadyen suggests that to Henry it’s also a way of making things turn out in the most favorable way not just for him but also for the woman he eagerly anticipates spending the rest of his life with – it’s a show of romantic ardor. He just doesn’t see the other side of it; his utter confidence in the rightness of his actions isn’t presumptuous but, in this actor’s approach, touchingly naïve. Macfadyen has a wonderful quality of hesitating before speaking sometimes; he looks as if he’s sniffing the air for inspiration before plunging into his next line. This mannerism goes along with the idea that his gender, his class, his wealth, his business acumen have all muffled him like an enormous, expensive overcoat from the world of connection that Margaret finally can’t suffer his ignorance of. When tragedy – of a kind his class is supposed to protect him from – crashes through, and he tells Margaret he’s broken, Macfadyen truly looks broken.

Ivory’s movie falters in the last third. When the narrative closes in, the film can’t seem to keep up – it breaks apart. The classic scene in the novel is the “only connect” scene, where Margaret confronts Henry with the inadequacy of his social, political and moral vision, and it’s all there, already dramatized by Forster, but for some reason Jhabvala chops it up into blackouts – and no one uses the phrase “only connect,” which is not only peculiar but an unnecessary blow to lovers of the book. Lonergan sticks to Forster, and the dramatic propulsion of the last section of the plot makes the TV version gripping, finally, at the end. I would say that his two real contributions are the way he shapes the material to underscore the theme of home, especially in the scenes where the movie winds up at Howard’s End, and his treatment of Leonard’s wife Jacky (Rosalind Eleazar). Nicola Duffett plays this character in Ivory’s film humorously, and Forster himself doesn’t have much feeling for her; he caricatures her.  She’s mostly a plot device whose checkered past links her to one of the major characters. I don’t think a twenty-first-century adaptation could get away with making her as gross and nagging as Forster does, especially with Eleazar, an actress of color, in the part. Eleazar is affecting in the role, though her scenes have effectively shifted from farce to melodrama. The only genuine reason to bother with this version, however, is Macfadyen. Otherwise I’d advise lovers of the novel who’ve never seen it performed to watch the movie, which continues to surprise.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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