Forster Revisited

For 30 years the team of James Ivory, Ismail Merchant and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala have enjoyed a singular, civilized collaboration outside the Hollywood mainstream. This unlikely trio-an American director who grew up in Klamath Falls, Ore., a Muslim Indian producer from Bombay and a German-born Jewish screenwriter who fled to England in 1939 and lived in New Delhi for 24 years with her Indian husband-seem equally at home on three continents. But they all work out of Manhattan, where each has an apartment in the same building on East 52nd Street.

At first they were known exclusively for their films of India, such as "Shakespeare Wallah" and "Bombay Talkie." Then their focus shifted to classy literary adaptations: Henry James ("The Europeans," "The Bostonians") and Jean Rhys ("Quartet"). For all the respect these films garnered, there were always detractors who dismissed their work as enervated "Masterpiece Theatre" gentility. Certainly, when Ivory was faced with incompatible material, such as Tama Janowitz's "Slaves of New York," his filmmaking could be stilted. Give him "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge" from Evan S. Connell and his understanding of upper-middle-class mores produced a film of grace and depth.

But it was E. M. Forster who seemed to bring out the team's best. "A Room With a View" (1986) raised the level of their game and brought them a popular success they'd never known. Merchant-Ivory then, without Jhabvala, tackled Forster's posthumously published "Maurice" and scored again. But now they have made a quantum leap: Howards End is the crowning achievement of their careers, the movie that seems to incorporate all they have learned about filmmaking-and life-and raised it to a new plateau. A film of dazzling visual splendor, powered by a dream cast-Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter-it's the 63-year-old director's masterpiece.

And it's Forster again. What is it about the diffident homosexual Edwardian novelist, whose skeptical liberal humanism is streaked with a hint of metaphysics, that speaks so eloquently to moviegoers of the '80s and '90s? If D. H. Lawrence was the classic author of choice for moviemakers in the unfettered '60s ("Women in Love'], the quieter rebellion of Forster-with his belief that it is "private life that holds out the mirror to infinity "-Seems to resonate in these more perplexed, inward-drawn times. Since David Lean's "A Passage to India" in 1984, five of Forster's six novels have been filmed, and all have translated effortlessly to the screen, no "updating" necessary.

Now along with "Howards End" comes director Charles ("Brideshead Revisited') Sturridge's seductive Where Angels Fear to Tread. Forster's first novel (1905), a comedy of morals and manners set in Italy and England, it is a kind of companion piece to "A Room With a View." It uses the sunbaked Tuscan landscape-and jolts of unexpected tragedy-to challenge and thaw there pressed, imperious souls of its English protagonists, who are scandalized when their widowed in-law (Helen Mirren) impetuously marries an Italian dentist's son half her age. Rupert Graves and Helena Bonham Carter (again), dispatched to Italy to deal with the situation, play the two Brits most capable of flexibility and redemption, but it is the hilarious Judy Davis as the incorrigibly priggish Harriet Herriton who practically steals the show. Sturridge's film is doggedly faithful to the book, but his Forster has a different texture from Ivory's: not as precise in its social details and tinged with the director's elegiac lyricism.

"Where Angels Fear to Tread" is a delightful appetizer; "Howards End" is the full banquet. As ambitious a novel as Forster would attempt, it would seem the least filmable. But Jhabvala's brilliant adaptation finds the dramatic essence of this 1910 novel without sacrificing any of its rich moral complexities. A tragicomedy of manners and class, it's Forster's symbolic meditation on the future of England itself How can the chasms of English society be bridged, the clash between classes, between the life of the mind, represented by the Schlegel sisters, and the life of money, achievement and business represented by the Wilcox family?

These two families-the artistic, semibohemian Schlegels and the rich, conventional Wilcoxes, who have built the society that allows the Schlegels their comfortable, intellectual existence-first come together at the Wilcoxes' country home, Howards End. The headstrong younger Schlegel sister Helen (Bonham Carter) briefly and foolishly falls in love with young Paul Wilcox. The families form a more lasting bond in London when the cultured, emancipated Margaret Schlegel (Thompson) forges a passionate friendship with the sickly, mysteriously formidable Mrs. Wilcox (Redgrave). Politically, the two have nothing in common, yet they sense a powerful kinship. On her deathbed, Mrs. Wilcox scribbles a note leaving her beloved country home to Margaret.

Henry (Hopkins), the Wilcoxes' powerful, self-satisfied patriarch, is outraged by this betrayal of family loyalty. Together, the family conspire to burn the note. But their lives are destined to be connected, as is the life of one Leonard Bast (Sam West), a poor clerk with cultural aspirations who enters the Schlegels' world when Helen mistakenly pinches his umbrella at a musical lecture. The freethinking but condescending sisters "take up" young Bast, though they're appalled by his vulgar wife, Jacky (Nicola Duffett). Their efforts to help their lower-class protege, however, have far-reaching, and disastrous, effects.

"Howards End" is a whopping good story and it would spoil the fun to reveal any more of the plot. But what begins as a charming social comedy darkens and deepens until it moves us at levels Ivory's films rarely have. There's something uncanny in the way Ivory captures Forster's wryly magnanimous tone: he understands the novel's delicate mix of irony and idealism, satire and romance. Forster may have conceived his book as a dialectic, but his humanity never allowed him to become schematic: his characters have a life of their own that forces us to constantly readjust our sympathies and judgments.

One couldn't imagine a more ideal cast. At the center is Thompson's astonishing Margaret, decent, vivacious, charmingly awkward and riddled with doubt. She captures the roiling, warm intelligence of Forster's heroine to a "T. " Redgrave's Mrs. Wilcox is only in the first part of the film, but she hovers over everything that follows like a great spirit. It's hard to imagine anyone else accomplishing what Redgrave does with this crucial role, capturing at once the woman's physical pain, her blurriness, her conventional ideas-and her extraordinary soul. As her infuriatingly smug husband-who later turns his affections to Margaret-Hopkins is magnetic, funny, even touching. Terrible hypocrite as Henry is, Hopkins allows us to see enough of the man's rough charm to understand why Margaret is drawn to him. Bonham Carter has grown enormously as an actor since "A Room With a View." As the passionate Helen, a romantic do-gooder whose heart can do as much harm as good, she burns with pale fire. From top to bottom, this big movie is packed with wonderful performances-West's pathetic, stoop-shouldered Leonard, James Wilby's supercilious Charles Wilcox, Susan Lindeman as Charles's peevish wife, Dolly.

It's hard to believe that this richly mounted film was made for $8 million: luminously shot by Tony Pierce-Roberts, gorgeously designed by Luciana Arrighi, hauntingly scored by Richard Robbins, it has the feel of a $30 million movie. Never before has Ivory's filmmaking seemed so fluid and confident. As an artist he seems to have taken the novel's most famous injunction, "only connect," to heart. It's fascinating that Jhabvala and Ivory have chosen not to include that often quoted epigraph in their movie. They didn't need to: their images have made the point. Everyone says great books never make great movies. "Howards End" is one grand exception.