Monday, 30 January 2012

Scene On a Sunday Monday: Howards End

This entry being submitted on a Monday instead of the usual Sunday is both a gaffe on my part, due to forgetfulness and laziness, and a tactical decision in celebration of Vanessa Redgrave’s birthday, today. I promised that I’d take a look at specific scenes from Oscar winning films for a few weeks (I started with All About Eve two weeks ago here) and although Vanessa’s performance didn’t garner an Oscar win (it did earn a well-deserved nomination), like the best of Merchant-Ivory’s work it’s difficult to extrapolate one facet from another, everything blends together beautifully.
Howards End is such a great piece I hate to single out a specific scene for discussion, especially one which does not feature the lovely Helena Bonham Carter is my favourite performance of hers. But, the lovely thing about the crafting of Howards End is that it’s so good, any scene will do (my review for my top 100 films here).

Set-Up: Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson) and Mrs. Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave) have grown to be friends over the few weeks of her stay in London. With her health ailing, she latches on to the younger woman as if finding a kindred spirit. This scene (one of a series of scene focusing specifically on Vanessa) occurs just after the two go out for Christmas shopping.
Its art direction was one of the categories Howards End won an Oscar for (the other two being Best Actress for Thompson, and Best Adapted Screenplay). Just look at that room above? The use of colour evoking a mood which is pretty but fading (so very in touch with Ruth Wilcox).
            Margaret: There we are. There we are. Thank you.

Like Forster’s novel, Howards End is about the conflict among class boundaries with the Wilcox’s as the upper class, the pragmatic Schlegel’s as the middle class and the lower-class Basts. I love, though, how Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (writer of the script) avoids sticking the characters in a rut and marking them as “hero” or “villain”. Mrs. Wilcox, for example, is from the old-school way of thinking. In a previous scene she expressed her belief that woman should stay out of politics, and the forward thinking Margaret is perplexed at the sentiment (but always gracious, says nothing). And, take a look at their return to Ruth’s temporary apartment. Helen is so engrossed in thanking the maid. It’s such a minute detail, but it underscores their different ways of thinking. Ruth is not a snob, at least not deliberately, but her thoughts on class boundaries are not Margaret’s.

And, oh, Vanessa. This performance really is something astonishing, and as a performer I’ve always found her to be marked by her amazing ability to fill in the blank spaces in characters that seem much more hazily formed on the page than they do when she embodies them.

I can’t choose a favourite performance of the three women, but I will say when Vanessa appears on screen it’s difficult to focus on anyone but her. Her walk there to sit is such a small thing, but it’s so effective. We never are told that Ruth is dying, but Vanessa’s very physicality is so poignant in all the ways you wouldn’t imagine considering how purposeful all her appearances in the film are. As an aside, though, MAJOR kudos to Jhabvala for taking this difficult creature form the page and doing good things to make it work, and Ivory (who seems to be in love with Vanessa) makes it work by his treatment of the character who’s more concept, symbol and celestial goodness than actual character.

            Margaret: Oh, I’m so sorry. We shouldn’t have done this today.

            Ruth: No, no. We had to do it before…

            Margaret: Before?

Ruth: Before my operation. I still haven’t told my family yet, Miss Schlegel. Everyone hates illnesses. That’s as it should be.
Alas, pictures can’t express the voice-work, and Vanessa’s voice is so beautifully ethereal. Titbit, I love that Katharine Hepburn is a big fan of Vanessa Redgrave (the two starred in The Trojan Women together). And something that always strikes me about the two is the oddity of how their voices never are so often a notable part of their performances.
Allow me to express umbrage, to no one in particular, at the way that James Ivory’s legend has endured. I mentioned as an aside in my review of Hanna that for some reason, directors who focus on period specific word are never referred to by the general cinephile populace as “auteurs” even though Ivory’s work would fill the strictures of what makes an auteur. The technical work on Howards End is not just prettiness. I love, for example, the use of wide-shots in the Ruth/Margaret scenes allowing us to see the women reacting to each other. See above, as Ruth fiddles with her hat, Margaret fiddles with her handkerchief – both of them ill at ease, but for different reasons.
Ruth: There's a chestnut tree at Howards End...that has pig's teeth stuck into the trunk...about four feet from the ground. Yes, the teeth of a pig. The country people put them there long ago...and they think that if they chew a piece of the will cure the toothache.
Another little thing I love: the choice to shoot Ruth expressly from Margaret’s perspective. So we see only the half of her face until she turns around so giddy in her memory. For, as otherworldly as Ruth is she is also decidedly childlike in the way she regards the memory of her house. Again, enunciation is a key factor. It’s both indicative of Ruth losing her breath, and Vanessa being just so goddamn awesome that she’ll decide to at seemingly innocuous bits in the line, just for effect which works so beautifully.

Margaret: Isn't it curious, though, that unlike Greece...England has no true mythology? All we have are witches and fairies.
The very first time I saw this, I always wondered if this particular line had any significance other than Margaret rambling. Now, I think that it’s a means of augmenting one of the themes of the story – identity, and what it entails. The representation of Howards End as the house of England (admittedly, more pronounced in the novel) is an important bit and it’s interesting how Margaret notes this decisive lack of dynamism in English history when only a few scenes earlier Ruth noted that her older son was a *true* Englishman (arguably, the most off-putting character of the lot, and strikingly the one with the least imagination). I love, too, how the cutaway to Vanessa’s stare is so moving.

          Ruth: Will you come with me to Howards End?

          Margaret: Oh, I would so much like to.

           Ruth: Come with me now?
           Margaret (OS): No, but it is too late–
          Ruth: There’s a train at 5:00 if we hurry. I want you to see it –
I swear, you guys, this scene turns me into a wreck. Even in her hospital bed Ruth’s sense of her mortality isn’t as striking and completely devastating as it is here. The earnestness within this plea is so moving, and it’s so sad – and understandable, still – how it confuses Margaret.

         Margaret: And, I want to see it. It sounds like such a glorious place, so redolent.

       Ruth: Yes, yes. I lived there long before I was married. I was born there.
Few things are as lovely as a smiling Vanessa Redgrave.

        Margaret: Might I come another time?
        Ruth: Yes....another day.
Seriously, y’all - wrecks me. So many good things going on: the immediate pull back from Margaret, Emma being so brilliant playing the confused and the guilt even if she doesn’t know why, Vanessa   acutely aware of her character and why this is so very important for her. And, kudos for the production team not going ersatz and inserting a bit of the score here to ensure that we feel what we’re supposed, which I rather think a lesser piece might have done.

Ruth: A thousand thanks, Miss Schlegel, for your help. It is a comfort to have the presents off my mind. The Christmas cards especially. I do admire your choice.

There is a sound of a bell ringing, and Vanessa looks up and we segue to a clock for the next scene.
This film has some ridiculously brilliant editing and photography choices, and it wasn’t even nominated for its editing which preserves with this annoying tendency I’ve noticed to ignore period-heavy flicks for their editing, alas. The film is at its best for its acting and writing I suppose, with Ivory’s direction a close third – but it’s all so expertly crafted. As a scene to identify the film’s entire theme this one is perhaps something of an oddity, but it’s a brilliant show of how excellent Ms. Redgrave and Ms. Thompson are here. Emma’ Oscar win remains one of my favourite in the category, and Howards End remains one of my favourite films. Ever.
And, to Vanessa Redgrave, legendary thespian – I extend Happy Birthday greetings and kudos on her excellent Ruth Wilcox; her last (thus far) Oscar nominated performance.


ruth said...

I really need to see this again, such a lovely film and a wonderful cast. I saw some clips of it last week as I was looking for scenes with Anthony Hopkins.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

ruth it's looooooooooooovely. see it!