Release Date: 1st May 1992
Director: James Ivory
Writer: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Producer: Ismail Merchant
Associate Producer: Paul Bradley & Donald Rosenfeld
Runtime: 2hrs 20mins
The story takes place in Edwardian England. Three families represent three social classes: the Wilcoxes are wealthy capitalists, the class that is displacing the aristocracy; the Schlegel sisters represent the enlightened bourgeoisie; and the Basts are in the lower middle class. The film asks the question “Who will inherit England?” and answers it through the ownership of the house, Howards End, as it passes from person to person.
At the start of the film, the younger sister, Helen Schlegel, rashly becomes engaged to the younger Wilcox son, Paul. The next day both realise their mistake and break it off, but Helen has told her older sister, who tells her family. Her Aunt Juley arrives at Howards End and so makes the Wilcox family aware of the engagement. Later, when the Wilcox family takes a house near to the Schlegels in London, the sister, Margaret Schlegel, feels compelled to visit because of the social embarrassment of the previous year. She befriends the mother, Ruth Wilcox. Ruth is descended from English yeoman stock and it is through her family that the Wilcoxes own Howards End, a house which she loves dearly and which is the symbol of rural England and English tradition. Over the course of a few months, the two women become close friends, and Ruth sees in Margaret a kindred spirit. Hearing that the lease on the Schlegels’ London house is due to expire, and knowing she is soon to die, Ruth bequeaths Howards End to Margaret. This causes great consternation for the Wilcoxes, who refuse to believe that Ruth was in her “right mind” or intended her home to go to a relative stranger. The Wilcoxes burn the piece of paper that Ruth’s bequest is written on, and decide to keep her will secret. Because he knows that he has prevented the Schlegels from finding a home in Howards End, Henry Wilcox offers to help Margaret find a new place to live. As a result, the two become close and Henry proposes. Margaret accepts.
The Schlegels befriend a young, poor, yet intellectual clerk, Leonard Bast. Wishing to improve his lot, they pass along advice from Henry that Leonard should leave his post because his company is heading for a crash. Leonard does so, but finds himself in a worse position and eventually unemployed.
The two plot lines converge at the marriage party of Evie Wilcox (daughter of Henry and Ruth). Helen has found the Basts starving and brings them to the party. Jacky Bast becomes drunk; Margaret approaches her with Henry to find out who she is. Jacky recognises Henry and it becomes clear that years previously he had had an affair with her. Humiliated and suspicious, Henry breaks off the engagement, but that evening he and Margaret reconcile and she forgives his sexual impropriety. In accordance with Henry’s wishes, she insists that Helen take the Basts away and refuses them help.
Because of this, the Schlegel sisters drift apart. Helen has a brief affair with Leonard Bast. She becomes pregnant, and leaves the country, telling none of her condition. When Helen returns to take her possessions, she asks if she can stay one night at Howards End. When Henry Wilcox finds out that Helen is pregnant, he insists that she cannot stay in the house, and that the man responsible must be found out and punished for dishonouring her.
Margaret and Henry argue bitterly about the different standards of sexual propriety applied to men and women, and Margaret says she is leaving Henry. Margaret, Leonard and the oldest Wilcox son Charles all make their way separately to Howards End and the final tragedy unfolds: Charles attacks and inadvertently kills Leonard, and is arrested. Henry’s pride is shaken; his feelings break through at last, and he and Margaret become truly close.
Ultimately, Ruth Wilcox’s wish is fulfilled: Henry leaves Howards End to Margaret upon his death. Helen is reconciled with Margaret, and Helen will raise her son as heir.
Vanessa Redgrave…as Ruth Wilcox
Helena Bonham Carter…as Helen Schlegel
Joseph Bennett…as Paul Wilcox
Emma Thompson…as Margaret Schlegel
Prunella Scales…as Aunt Juley
Adrian Ross Magenty…as Tibby Schlegel
Jo Kendall…as Annie
Anthony Hopkins…as Henry Wilcox
James Wilby…as Charles Wilcox
Jemma Redgrave…as Evie Wilcox
1993: BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role