Without a doubt, Howards End is one of my favourite films… not just of the 90s, but of all times. It's a period drama that just suits my taste, with an interesting screenplay, very smart direction and great acting.
As the film starts, you get the feeling that this movie is not about her character. Howards End dives right into the story and for the first part of it, Emma gets lost among all those characters. Emma plays Margaret Schlegel, a spinster-to-be, an independent woman at the turn of the century London, who lives an upper middle class life with her younger brother and sister (played by a free spirited Helena Bonham Carter). It would be impossible to tell the whole story of the film as there’s too much happening; you must watch it. Margaret will be courted by the widower of a good friend of hers, and complication will result.
We discover Margaret as an ordinary woman. She’s not beautiful and she has a simple way of being. She talks a lot, sometimes too much. She’s very well behaved, very polite and when she worries it’s just for the others. She has a lot of good-will, she’s very lively and almost always has a smile on her face. In the first part of the film I actually found her to be some kind of a geek, if that word is allowed. She’s simple, she doesn’t always fit in, she’s like an old maid with a good heart.
Emma does a good job in keeping Margaret under the radar. And we like her, we might actually identify with her, especially in the scenes involving the dying Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave). These scenes help humanize Margaret, but also damage the performance, at least in my eyes. Because Ruth is such a strange woman, next to her Margaret seems the most natural person in the world; it helps the performance because we start to like Margaret and she’s the alter ego of the viewer. On the other hand, Vanessa Redgrave is that brilliant in the role (!) that for 15 minutes she totally overshadows what Emma is trying to act. Vanessa steals every scene she’s in and you can’t take you eyes off her. Once Ruth dies, Emma can return and claim her acting glory; but who we remember for 20 minutes is Vanessa and not so much Emma.
As the story becomes more complicated, so do Emma’s acting and storyline. As she becomes the unexpected object of desire of a wealthy man, she blooms; not from a virgin to a woman, but from a good-natured geek to a woman who’s still kind and lovely, but also fierce when the situation asks for it. She is loving and she knows how to talk to people (take her fiancé for example) without seeming cunning. Arguably, Emma’s best acting moment is also her one flashy scene: her crying after having the most serious fight with her fiancé. Her desperation is honest, natural, obvious given the situation; it’s a vulnerability she keeps for herself and that’s the moment of solitude, in front of a mirror, where she can let it go. Excellent acting moment.
To me, another great acting moment of hers is when she’s defending her pregnant sister and asking for something on her behalf. In this scene, she’s more like a mother, like a protective female lion, perfectly manoeuvring the art of reasoning without any intention of letting go. With the help of the great direction of James Ivory, in our eyes she’s no longer too talkative or ignorable, but a strong woman you like to watch and you can’t wait for her to come back on screen. Needless to say, the success of the character arc and this likeability of the character are thanks to Emma who puts real emotion in every scene. And she looks so adequate for this type of proper British film!
Emma is just as good as the film itself, and that says a lot. She understands the character and she knows when, how and how much to give or to show onscreen. Her performance is great and the character difficult, though, at first, it might not leave that impression. However. However! :) I’m going towards 5 stars, but I’m not giving them. The main reason was previously mentioned and it’s called Vanessa Redgrave. It may not be Emma’s fault, but for a good part of the film she’s not the one carrying it. So , at least for now. And I keep thinking this was a predictable, but rather an unusual Oscar choice, because of the unspectacular way of the character. They usually go for flashier performances.