NEW YORK — `HOWARD'S End" is perhaps the most highly regarded of all E. M. Forster's novels, and for good reason.
On one level, it's an absorbing story of human relations, with especially strong insight into the tensions between men and women bound by rigorous social conventions. On another level, it's a story of England in transition - well on its way to modernity, yet still anchored in an older way of life that might not have been better, but was certainly slower and easier to fathom.
"Howard's End" has now been made into a uncommonly smart film by the team of director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, whose elegant taste and eloquent style are perfect complements to the subtleties and complexities of Forster's novel.
The story of "Howard's End" is fairly involved, so I'll just give a brief sketch of what it's about. Two of the main characters are sisters from a comfortable London household. One of them becomes acquainted with a wealthy man who decides to marry her, even though their families have an odd relationship that she only dimly understands.
The other sister gets involved with a working-class clerk who meets her through an ironic Forster coincidence (rainy day, misplaced umbrella) and becomes part of her life in ways she couldn't have expected. The story travels through many phases and brings in many other characters before a violent climax at Howard's End, a venerable country home whose spirit - graceful, old-fashioned, oddly irrelevant to the rhythms of modern-day life - hovers over the entire narrative.
Forster has become a recent specialty of the Merchant Ivory group, which successfully adapted two of his other novels ("A Room With a View" and "Maurice") during the 1980s. Compared with those movies - and with "Mr. & Mrs. Bridge," the team's last picture - the new film is busier and more sweeping in its size, its vision, and its concern with not just a few main characters but a way of life undergoing the upheavals of modernity. It's no accident that one close-up shows a row of Dickens volumes being care fully placed on a shelf; the movie is often Dickensian in mood and atmosphere.
"Howard's End" is very much a Merchant Ivory film, however. It's thoughtful in tone and imaginative in style. It's exquisitely filmed by Tony Pierce-Roberts, a master cinematographer who has served Merchant Ivory Productions well on many occasions. It's punctuated with expressive music by Richard Robbins, who moves effortlessly from symphonic richness to a minimalist urgency associated with the most troubling of the film's underlying concerns.
And it's splendiferously acted by an excellent cast including Helena Bonham Carter and Emma Thompson as the sisters, Anthony Hopkins as the wealthy suitor, and Vanessa Redgrave as an eccentric older woman who helps set the tale in motion.
"Howard's End" may not be as rousingly popular as "A Room With a View" since it's longer, more demanding, and closer to a true 19th-century novel than earlier Merchant Ivory pictures have been. But settle into its leisurely rhythms and delicious images, and you'll find it a rare treat - a haven of literacy and civilization in a movie scene that values the opposite qualities all too often.