Proper British Class Warfare
She might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man.
Howards End is one of those films put together by a very talented director (James Ivory) who pulls in an assortment of quality actors (Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Vanessa Redgrave) that emerges as a beautiful story of slow and subtle progression. The critics love it (Ebert has it on his list of the greatest films ever made), awards shower down upon it, including the obligatory Best Costume Academy Award, which should just be renamed “the list of all period films that came out this year.” And if the Academy is on the period drama phase of its cycle, a few nominations and wins in the big categories roll in too. It quickly disappears from consciousness though since only eleven people see it in theaters and it sure isn’t the sort to pop up on TNT We Know Drama, since that’s reserved for only true classics like Independence Day. It makes the rounds on the low ends of various critics’ top-arbitrary number lists, which serve little purpose other than getting it added on a “I should watch something serious” whim to the bottom of a handful of Netflix queues, where it will languish interminably.
It does, however, pop up occasionally late at night on PBS, which is where I managed to catch it since I have become an odd mixture of prematurely geriatric and insomniac.
The film takes its time, not meandering, but allowing the story to unfold at its own pace. It introduces three families in England around 1900. The Wilcoxes are new money Victorian capitalists headed up by their patriarch, played by Anthony Hopkins. The Schlegels are a pair of sisters played by Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter, remnants of the disappearing old money. The Basts are lower middle class, that nascent class of suit-wearing professionals who pretended to the grandeur of the rich but teetered above the chasm of industrial poverty. It excels in patience and subtlety, allowing the scenes and characters to speak for themselves with little in the way of explanation. Most films make it apparent at the moment a scene starts, if not from the transition a beat before, exactly what the scene is and what is going on. There is a particular class of film that expects you to catch up and pick up on each scene as it is happening. That lack of hand holding is refreshing, and it serves to make the film more enthralling. It is said that novels force a reader to think and imagine because of their lack of visuals, Howards End shows how a film can do essentially the same thing.
Based on a novel by E. M. Forster, the story is an allegory for class conflict at the dawn of the 20th century in Britain. The three families are stand-ins for their respective classes, and the events that unfold can be viewed through the lens of that conflict. It ends on a progressive note, with the powerful image of the of new money and old money wedded, and the sons of the bourgeois inheriting the houses of old. It works on that level, showing a way out for the smoldering class conflict of the time, implying a sad and very British sentiment that these things will work themselves out with time. Time heals everything not out of kindness, but because it buries the old wounds until we forget.
But there’s a catch here, a middle class tunnel vision of the world that afflicts many stories of this era. It’s a story of class conflict without the lower class. The Basts are presented as poor, though they are anything but. They teeter on it, but at their height they are middle class. Leonard, for all his problems, wears a suit to work in a financial firm, he doesn’t slave in a factory until he dies young of silicosis. It is not fair to say that the film is a true story of class conflict so much as a reconciliation of the differences of the upper crust. Forster insisted that the novel was “not concerned with the very poor,” but that’s a poor defense of the shortcoming. It’s easy to reconcile class differences when you don’t include the butlers and maids, not to mention the urban under class, in that equation. The poignant conclusion to the film, the inheritance of the house called Howards End by the son of the middle class and aristocracy from the wealthy capitalist, is meant to be a sort of healing, but from the perspective of the unseen lower classes it is merely the latest of the endless history of birth determining status and wealth. What the story reminds me most of, of all things, is J.R.R. Tolkein’s nostalgia for an English countryside that never existed but in the minds of those hopelessly afflicted with the same tunnel vision.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.
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