Sunday, April 3, 2011

Howards End

I found myself a little puzzled by Howards End, the movie, on revisiting it last night. It is so long since I read the E. M. Forster novel that I can't remember it well enough to know what part of it might be missing in the movie, but I found it hard to know exactly what the movie version was about. Was it about the Emma Thompson character, the amiable--and infinitely pliable--Margaret Schelegel? Did it matter that she was half-German at the time the novel was written, shortly before the start of the first world war? And what about her bolschy sister, Helen, played by a youthful Helena Bonham-Carter, who takes every opportunity to throw a wrench in the smoothly oiled workings of the British class system? Did that make it about women's rights? And Henry Wilcox, wealthy capitalist, who looks down his nose at both women in general and the working classes--and is looked down upon, in turn, by those who did not have to make their money, but inherited it? And his son, on his way to becoming one of the latter, but who blots his copybook by causing the death of one of those working class slobs because he betrayed his class by fathering a child with Helen?

I mean, I understand that it's about all these things, but somehow they never quite came into focus. The movie had no clear moral or emotional compass, to put these things into perspective. We admire Margaret for her kindness and humanity, but worry that she surrenders much of that kindness and humanity when put to the test, marrying herself off to Henry and, aside from a few small gestures and protests, subordinating herself to his dismissive snobbery. Is she selling our for money, social standing? Love? Do we admire Henry for his forthrightness and his imperturbable sense of the rightness of his every thought and action? (Again, there are occasional signs of doubt, but nothing significant. His universe is clearly defined, as is the social structure he embraces.)

What are we to make of the ending, when Henry announces to the family that Margaret will inherit Howards End (a metaphor for England?), a rather cynical gesture in view of the fact that he had knowingly conspired with the family to betray his mother's intention, at her deathbed, years before, that she should have it? This deception, along with his callous dismissal of his wife's wishes, would seem to require a different reward than her lasting devotion. Perhaps, we hope, the fact that he allows Helen and her illegitimate child to remain a part of the Howards End household suggests some small change, some growth in his vision of the world. The movie seems to suggest, however, that he remains comfortably superior in his attitude.

Where there's conflict, of course, there is bound to be confusion. Not everything in life works out quite as we would want or expect it to. And just as often, there are no clear moral boundaries. But there's a kind of gut-level dissatisfaction, a puzzlement, if you will, that you don't want to take away from your two hours spent with fascinating characters. You want things to feel right at the end, and for some reason that didn't happen for me with this movie. I was left feeling slightly annoyed and disappointed with Margaret, the main character, and the one whose gratifying resolution is the most important. And still pissed at both Helen and Henry, opposite ends of the pole that Margaret seeks to balance. Which is why I'm let wondering whether the film version missed some important aspect of the book, or whether a re-reading of the book today would leave me similarly exasperated and incomplete.

1 comment:

Romany said...

I was more impressed with Henry's growing self-knowledge and doubt, transformation really, than I guess you see.