Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Ending of Howard's End

Janet and I had been going for a record on Netflix inactivity. We had had the same DVD -- Howard's End -- sitting on top of the TV cabinet for nearly a month. It was long enough that we could never quite bring ourselves to watch it . . . until now. But we certainly wanted to; Howard's End is a movie that seems to always be invoked in other movie reviews whenever any of its actors are mentioned (e.g. "Oh, this is another rich-patriarch role, a la Howard's End, for Anthony Hopkins") and looked like the sort of movie we could get into, i.e. a period drama in which nothing gets blown up.

(Warning: spoilers follow. If, of course, it's possible to have a spoiler for something released fifteen years ago.)

About halfway through I remarked to Janet, "This story would be rather plodding, almost boring, if it weren't for such great acting." Vanessa Redgrave as Ruth Wilcox was the most convincing dying woman we had ever seen stage or screen, including stories like Wit that are all about a dying woman. She had that aura of luminescent diminishment, like someone already halfway to the other side. And all the other characters were perfectly cast and played as well. Anthony Hopkins is the final word in complex rich patriarchs, although he never quite rounded the bend into likeable on this one. Emma Thompson is sort of a female equivalent of Tom Hanks, someone infinitely likeable and empathetic, even when she does things we can't quite agree with, and she anchors this movie with that quality. Helena Bonham Carter has the capacity to go from almost as likeable as Emma Thompson to a fey, oh-my-god-that-girl-is-nuts intensity, and both those capacities get a workout in this film.

As for the story of Howard's End . . . well, you can tell that it's an adapted novel and not a Hollywood script. It has a quirky, meandering, rather non-linear way of unfolding that feels just like some novels. (Usually, the novels in which the author doesn't himself know what's going to happen next, which I find to be frustratingly arbitrary in their plots.) Such novel-y plots require great acting and cinematography to convey the sense of character development and mood that are the whole point of such novels. I suppose Howard's End the movie pulls that off; I did sit through all two hours and twenty minutes being completely engaged.

I guess what bothered me the most was that the premise of the story -- a good woman cheated of her inherited house eventually gets it back anyway -- prepares you for a story of poetic justice. Margaret Schlegel does eventually get the house that Ruth Wilcox willed to her -- but that outcome feels almost paltry and anti-climactic after all that preceeds it. The justice that ultimately comes down on all the characters is out of proportion. Margaret Schlegel, who does try awfully hard to be consistently good throughout the story, winds up disaffected from her husband. Helen Schlegel, who is the most passionate about doing the right thing, winds up pregnant out of wedlock and expelled from society. Her lover, Leonard Bost, who was an extremely decent stand-up chap except for his one indiscretion, never gets any consolation for his goodness; he gets trapped in a not-exactly-loveless marriage to a lushy woman, struggles to make a living while his poetic soul languishes, loses his job because of bad information, descends into utter poverty, and ultimately is killed in an accident, crushed under the books he loves. Oy. The Wilcoxes certainly deserved to lose their ancestral home, but they didn't really much want it anyway to begin with, and the son Charles takes a heavy manslaughter rap while his father Henry seems to miss any direct consequences entirely, other than returning to the loneliness of an aging widower.

What are we to conclude from such a sequence of events? That rich people are assholes? That poor people get the shaft? That the good people in between get bashed about by trying to associate with both rich and poor? These all may hold some truth, but it wasn't really the truth we expected.



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