Oscar History

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Ruth Wilcox’s May Flowers

They’re arriving so late in the day because Mrs. Wilcox is a nymph who travels at night.

As far as evocative film openings go this lush green opening for Howards End ranks among the top for me. Really, though, many films would be vastly improved if they open with a strolling Vanessa Redgrave. more...

Andrew back with another episode of May Flowers

The idea of the camera following Ruth as she walks restlessly about the woods beside her home at the eponymous Howards End is an immediate key tool to understanding this character. Flowers, and all of nature really, plays a significant role in constructing Ruth Wilcox’s identity in Howards End, both film and novel. In an early moment in the novel wilful Helen Schlegel writes home to sister Meg while staying with the Wilcoxes.

“The house is covered with vine. I looked out earlier, and Mrs. Wilcox was already in the garden. She evidently loves it.”

The novel is so rich with symbolism each time I rewatch the Merchant Ivory film I'm impressed by how cinematic they make it. Motifs and symbols play a major role in Forster’s prose and between Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s near perfect screenplay, Ivory's direction and Tony Pierce-Roberts's photography the film instantly captures this naturalistic nature in in a fine way ensuring that we first think of Mrs.Wilcox is amidst natural things. Howards End examines an England at crisis, experiencing the growing pains of development. Industrial developments pulls one and naturalistic idealism another. Ruth is a creature of the latter age and Redgrave’s ethereal performance is a perfect fit. 

That upward glance at her house with flowers in her hair tells us so much. And as we come to know the other players in this tale of England we are unsurprised that pragmatic Henry Wilcox does not care much for the house, or I suspect the flowers around it. Ruth's placement with flowers is in contrast to more progresssive symbols like the motor car. Vanessa, such a fine performer, makes Ruth pronounce the word "garage" in a later scene as if it's a foreign being.

“The vice of the Pan-German is that it only cares for what it can use.”

“That is the vice of the Imperial mind.”

“The vice of the vulgar mind.”

Ruth's flowers might not surve any expressly utilatarian purpose like Eliza's did yesterday but unlike the Imperial mind Ruth's goddness lies in her ability to understand enjoy the simplicity of nature, even if it's not useful. Notice how in this first conversation Ruth has with Meg her room is inundated with flower and plants – real ones and images on the wall. Closeness to nature, in whatever form, is what marks this character and it's fitting that Vanessa's performance unfolds as organic and natural as the vines she loves so.

It’s why the final moment we see Mrs. Wilcox is such a beautiful one. Margaret comes to see the bedridden Ruth and brings…what else but a bouquet of flowers for this naturalist? Vanessa looks so grateful for the bouquet, even though she already has many other bouquets on her nightstand. But she knows she’s found someone to represent her well. That moment where she has Margaret lean in to put a flower in her hair tells us as much as we need to know.

 It’s only a few moments later that dying root signs over her Howards End to Margaret. And in handing this over it was as if not just Ruth Wilcox, but Vanessa Redgrave, was taking a look at Emma Thompson and saying, "Yes, this young woman will be able to take the torch from me and carry on the batallion of great Briton actresses."

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Reader Comments (13)

i LOVE this entry! thank you!

May 17, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrichard

Redgrave is the key to the movie. If you buy her performance all others become believable.
Oscar robbery that year.

May 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterrobertL

I love this opening SO much. I haven't seen this movie in so long but that opening just sticks. perfect tone setter... it's crazy to think of how beautiful Howards End is and realize how little it cost to make and all the movies that are 10 times as expensive that aren't worthy to compete with any of its delicious frames for beauty

May 17, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

That opening makes me SWOON.

May 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVince Smetana

I love this series. I had watched all the May flowers films (so far) and I have a pretty fond feeling for ALL of them; thus it's a pleasure to read such lovely pieces.

May 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commentertombeet

The first time I saw this movie was when I was binging on costume dramas at age 13 or so and it all went way over my head (I was looking for something more sweeping and accessible, like The Age of Innocence).

But I'm now twice that age so I was due to revisit it, which I finally did last month. And oh boy, was I blown away. I love it when a relatively mainstream movie not only attempts but also delivers the thematic breadth as well as psychological depth and precision of a novel. I wish this happened more often - especially in non-period non-adaptations, though I'm very aware how averse contemporary financiers as well as (let's admit it) audiences tend to be to symbolism, subtlety and literate dialogue.

Admittedly - and inevitably, with such a massive storyline to be crammed into acceptable feature length - there were a couple of holes in the plot - not in terms of credibility so much as emotional throughline and development. But they were minor, and mostly they just made me want to read Forster's novel all the more, as well as Zadie Smith's recent contemporary rehash.

As for the performances - I'd never been much of a Redgrave fanboy. I'd always liked her but for some reason I'd never connected to either of her performances in that mad-dog diva-worship way that leads to obsession.

I found her strong (as usual) in Howards End but it was even more recently that she (finally) left me breathless when I saw her turns in Julia and Coriolanus. I can't believe she got no awards traction for the latter - easily the best supporting performance of 2011.

In the meantime however, I have to confess to being profoundly confused as to what earned Emma Thompson not only her Oscar but also unchallenged dominance over that year's awards circuit as well as two subsequent decades of gushing adulation. I thought she was lovely and charismatic and very precise as Margaret Schlegel, but I don't quite see what qualifies it as a performance for the ages. There were at least three superior performances that year alone.

May 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commentergoran

in 92's weak actress year i 'd like to know which 3,i can think of sarandon in lorenzos oil.

May 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermark

A wonderful scene for a wonderful actress... I never get enough of Vanessa.

May 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCCA

LOVE this entry. LOVE this intro. The whole movie is aces but this intro sets up everything just beautifully. And the rich twilight colours! UGH.

Love the last bit as well about the Redgrave-Thompson connection. And Emma did carry that battalion quite handsomely, didn't she? A good 8 or so years there where she was giving nothing but fantastic and interesting performances. Hell, even after the clear Kate Winslet hand-off, she still had Wit, Angels in America, Love Actually, Stranger Than Fiction and Last Chance Harvey in her arsenal. Love that woman, can honestly never have too much of her nowadays.

And can I throw my hat into the ring and declare this film one of the best book-to-film adaptations of all time? Better than the book, in some outright scenes and moments, I felt. The way its transfer came about seems so seamless and simple, it's a wonder not more people study this film in screenwriting classes.

May 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMark The First

Thanks so much for posting this!

May 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTyler

Mark - the problem here is completely that Merchant and Ivory were such giants of the Period Costume Drama that all Period Costume Dramas became referenced as Merchant & Ivory.... and their films are so much better than the standard and yet they dont get the respect. it's so annoying. Few films are as perfectly realized as ROOM WITH A VIEW and HOWARDS END.

May 18, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

everyone - Few things make me as happy as people showing love for "Howards End".

Goran - I'd disagree on Emma's work here, which is one of my favourite of that decade. re awards love, though, I am constantly surprised that she swept through the 1992 race. It's a very un-showy performance but I guess everyone was just seeing right that year ;)

tombeet - Very glad you're enjoying the "May Flowers" this year.

Mark the First, Nathaniel - I'd concur with you Mark on the screenplay. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is someone I'd nominate for best screen-writer of the last 50 years at least. I'm so glad she got a deserved Oscar for this. But, as Nathaniel points out there's that annoying lack of respect for period costume dramas. A true shame.

May 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

I love how the next scene is when she is looking into the house, with the yellow light shining on her, and there are Anthony Hopkins, HBC, James Wilby, etc., all chatting away in the house. It just adds to the whole "she's ethereal", "she's watching over us" vibe to the film. Amazing. Thanks for this entry!

May 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCharlieG

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