In Edwardian England Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham Carter) becomes engaged to Paul Wilcox during a moment of passion, while she is staying at the country home of the Wilcox family, Howards End. The Schlegels are an intellectual family of Anglo-German bourgeoisie, while the Wilcoxes are conservative and wealthy, headed by hard-headed businessman Henry (Anthony Hopkins). Helen and Paul quickly decide against the engagement, but Helen has already sent a telegram informing her sister Margaret (Emma Thompson), which causes an uproar when the sisters' Aunt Juley (Prunella Scales) arrives and causes a scene. Months later, when the Wilcox family takes a flat across the street from the Schlegels in London, Margaret resumes her acquaintance with Mrs. Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave), whom she had briefly met before. Ruth is descended from English yeoman stock and it is through her family that the Wilcoxes have come to own Howards End, a house she loves dearly.
Over the course of the next few months, the two women become very good friends, even as Mrs. Wilcox's health declines. Hearing that the lease on the Schlegels' house is due to expire, Ruth bequeaths Howards End to Margaret on her death bed. This causes great consternation to the Wilcoxes, who refuse to believe that Ruth was in her "right mind" or could possibly have intended her home to go to a relative stranger. The Wilcoxes burn the piece of paper on which Ruth's bequest is written, deciding to ignore it completely. Henry begins to develop an attraction to Margaret, offering to assist her in finding a new home. Eventually he proposes marriage, which Margaret accepts.
Some time before this the Schlegels had befriended a young clerk, Leonard Bast (Samuel West), who lives with a woman of dubious origins named Jacky (Nicola Duffett). Both sisters find Leonard remarkable, appreciating his intellectual curiosity and desire to improve his lot in life. The sisters pass along advice from Henry to the effect that Leonard must leave his post, because the insurance company he works for is supposedly heading for bankruptcy. Leonard takes the advice and quits, but has to settle for a job paying much less, which he eventually loses altogether. Helen is later enraged to learn that Henry's advice was wrong and the company was perfectly sound.
Months later, Henry and Margaret host the wedding of his daughter Evie (Jemma Redgrave) at his Shropshire estate. Margaret is shocked when Helen arrives with the Basts, who she has found living in deep poverty. Considering that Henry is responsible for their plight, she demands he help them. However Jacky becomes drunk at the reception, and when she sees Henry she recognizes and exposes him as a former lover from years ago. Henry is embarrassed and ashamed to have been revealed as an adulterer in front of Margaret, but she forgives him and agrees to send the Basts away. After the wedding, Helen, upset with Margaret's decision to marry a man she loathes, leaves for Germany, but not before making love to Leonard.
Margaret and Henry marry, with the pair arranging to use Howards End as storage for Margaret's belongings. After months of only hearing from Helen through the odd postcard, Margaret grows concerned. When Aunt Juley falls ill, Helen returns to England to care for her but avoids seeing Margaret. Thinking that Helen is mentally unstable, Margaret lures her to Howards End to collect her belongings, only to confront her with a doctor. However, on first glance she realizes that Helen is heavily pregnant, with Leonard Bast's child. Helen insists on returning to Germany to raise her baby alone, but asks that she be allowed to stay the night at Howards End before she leaves. When Margaret requests this from Henry, he stubbornly refuses and the two bicker.
The next day, Leonard, still living unhappily in poverty with Jacky, leaves London and travels to Howards End to see the Schlegels. When he arrives he finds the pair, as well as Henry's brutish eldest son Charles (James Wilby). Charles quickly realizes that Leonard is the baby's father, and begins assaulting him for dishonoring Helen. In his rage he beats him with the flat of a sword, which causes Leonard to have a heart attack and die. The police charge Charles with manslaughter and Henry breaks down when Margaret tells him that she is leaving him to help raise Helen's baby.
A year later Paul, Evie and Charles's wife Dolly gather at Howards End. Henry and Margaret are still together, and living with Helen and her young son. Henry tells the others that upon his death, Margaret will receive Howards End, but no money, at her own request. Dolly points out the irony of Margaret inheriting the house, revealing Mrs. Wilcox's dying wish to Margaret for the first time. Henry admits to what happened, and Margaret appears to forgive him.
The budget for Howards End stood at $8 million, considerably larger than that of Maurice and A Room with a View, which led to trouble in raising capital in the UK and the United States. Orion Pictures, the film's distributor, was on the verge of bankruptcy and only contributed a small amount to the overall budget. A solution presented itself when Merchant Ivory sought funding through an intermediary in Japan, where the previous Forster adaptations, particularly Maurice, had been very successful. Eventually Japanese companies including the Sumitomo Corporation, Japan Satellite Broadcasting and the Imagica Corporation provided the bulk of the film's financing. The distribution problem would be solved when the heads of Orion Classics departed the company for Sony Pictures. Howards End would become the first title distributed by the new division of Sony Pictures Classics.
Anthony Hopkins accepted the part of Henry Wilcox after reading the script, passed to him by a young woman who was helping edit Slaves of New York and The Silence of the Lambs simultaneously in the same building. Phoebe Nicholls, Joely Richardson, Miranda Richardson and Tilda Swinton were all considered for the part of Margaret Schlegel before Emma Thompson accepted the role. Jemma Redgrave (Evie Wilcox), who plays the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave (Ruth Wilcox), is her niece off-screen. This is the only time they have shared the screen, although Jemma did act with her aunt Vanessa on stage in Chekhov's Three Sisters in 1990, a production in which the third sister was played by Vanessa's sister Lynn Redgrave. Samuel West is the son of actors Timothy West and Prunella Scales."Bridal Lullaby" by Percy Grainger
Courtesy of Bardie Edition
"Mock Morris" by Percy Grainger
Courtesy of Schott & Co., Ltd.
"La Dance" (1906) by André Derain
(c) 1992 Artist Rights Society, New York/ADAGP
Courtesy of the Fridart Foundation.
5th Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven (uncredited)
The score was composed by Richard Robbins, with elements of the score based on Percy Grainger's works "Bridal Lullaby" and "Mock Morris". The piano pieces were performed by the English concert pianist Martin Jones.
Filming locations in London included a house in Victoria Square, which stood in for the Schlegel home, Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly, Simpson's-in-the-Strand restaurant, and St. Pancras Station. Areas around the Admiralty Arch and in front of the Royal Exchange in the City of London were dressed to film traffic scenes of 1910 London. The scene where Margaret and Helen stroll with Henry in the evening was filmed on Chiswick Mall in Chiswick, London. The bank that Leonard runs into Helen at is the lobby of the Baltic Exchange, 30 St. Mary Axe, London. Soon after filming it was bombed by the IRA, razed, and the Swiss Re building, or The Gherkin was erected on its site. The Rosewood London on High Holborn, which was then the Pearl Assurance Building, represented the Porphyrion Fire Insurance Company.
The quadrangle of the Founder's Building at Royal Holloway, University of London, in Surrey, stood in for the hospital where Margaret visits Mrs. Wilcox.  The "Howards End" house in the countryside is Peppard Cottage in Rotherfield Peppard, Oxfordshire; Dolly and Charles's house is nearby, as is the bluebell wood where Leonard strolls in his dream. Henry's country house, Honiton, was actually Brampton Bryan in Herefordshire, near the Welsh border.
The film received massive critical acclaim. On 5 June 2005, Roger Ebert included it on his list of "Great Movies". Leonard Maltin awarded the film a rare 4 out of 4 star rating, and called the film "Extraordinarily good on every level."
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a rating of 93%, based on 59 reviews, with an average rating of 8.3/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "A superbly-mounted adaptation of E.M. Forster's tale of British class tension, with exceptional performances all round, Howard's End ranks among the best of Merchant-Ivory's work." On Metacritic, the film holds a score of 89 out of 100, based on 10 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim".
According to the website Box Office Mojo, the total gross of the film stands at $26.1 million.
In 2016, the film was selected for screening as part of the Cannes Classics section at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, and was released theatrically after restoration on August 26, 2016.
The Criterion Collection released Blu-ray and DVD versions of the film on November 3, 2009 that have since gone out of print. The release was unfortunately subject to a bronzing issue which would discolor the disc bronze and render it unplayable. This was due to a pressing issue with the factory, though not every disc was subject to bronzing. Cohen Film Collection released their own special edition Blu-ray on December 6, 2016.
65th Academy Awards (1992)Won: Best Actress – Emma Thompson
Won: Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published – Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Won: Best Art Direction – Art Direction: Luciana Arrighi; Set Decoration: Ian Whittaker
Nominated: Best Picture – Ismail Merchant
Nominated: Directing – James Ivory
Nominated: Best Supporting Actress – Vanessa Redgrave
Nominated: Best Cinematography – Tony Pierce-Roberts
Nominated: Costume Design – Jenny Beavan and John Bright
Nominated: Original Music Score – Richard Robbins
46th British Academy Film (BAFTA) Awards (1992)Won: Best Film – Ismail Merchant
Won: Best Actress in a Leading Role – Emma Thompson
Nominated: Best Direction – James Ivory
Nominated: Best Adapted Screenplay – Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Nominated: Best Actress in a Supporting Role – Helena Bonham Carter
Nominated: Best Actor in a Supporting Role – Samuel West
Nominated: Best Cinematography – Tony Pierce-Roberts
Nominated: Best Production Design – Luciana Arrighi
Nominated: Best Costume Design – Jenny Beavan and John Bright
Nominated: Best Editing – Andrew Marcus
Nominated: Best Makeup and Hair – Christine Beveridge
50th Golden Globe Awards (1992)Won: Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama – Emma Thompson
Nominated: Best Director – James Ivory
Nominated: Best Motion Picture – Drama – Ismail Merchant
Nominated: Best Screenplay – Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
1992 Directors Guild of America AwardsNominated: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures — James Ivory
1992 Writers Guild of America AwardsNominated: Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published — Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
1992 New York Film Critics Circle AwardsWon: Best Actress – Emma Thompson
Nominated: Best Film — Ismail Merchant
Nominated: Best Director — James Ivory
1992 Los Angeles Film Critics Association AwardsWon: Best Actress – Emma Thompson
1992 National Society of Film Critics AwardsWon: Best Actress – Emma Thompson
Nominated: Best Supporting Actress — Vanessa Redgrave
1992 National Board of Review AwardsWon: Best Film – Ismail Merchant
Won: Best Director – James Ivory
Won: Best Actress – Emma Thompson
Cannes Film FestivalWon: 45th Anniversary Prize – James Ivory
Nominated: Palme d'or