Vanessa Redgrave received her sixth Oscar nomination for her performance as Ruth Wilcox in Howards End.
Howards End is a magnificent movie revolving around three families belonging to three different social classes at the beginning of the 20th century. First off, I think this picture is an absolute masterpiece of writing, with brilliantly clever dialogue and carefully layered characters. It's such a stunning depiction of that specific time of history while feeling so utterly fresh and contemporary as well. The portrayal of the differences between social classes and the hypocrisy of the ruling class never becomes heavy-handed or one-sided, but it's treated in a human, sensitive fashion that creates at least an understanding even to the most morally questionable characters. The score is absolutely enchanting and it enhances the atmosphere of poetic beauty that surrounds the film and the cinematography is wonderful. And there is not a single bad performance in the cast, though I feel Helena Bonham Carter deserves a special mention for her career-best work here.
Ruth Wilcox is a challenging role for many reasons. On one hand, it's technically quite limited as it appears on screen only for a handful of scenes at the beginning of the movie and it serves mostly as a setup for the rest of the story. On the other hand, the whole plot relies heavily on her character and the ability of the actress to give believability and emotional weight to the character's final decision on her deathbed, which not only sets the action to motion but is also a representation of the movie's themes and ideas. Thankfully the actress in question is far from being a random one, but it's Vanessa Redgrave, who is in my opinion one of the most intelligent, versatile and gifted performers to ever grace the screen. Redgrave is one of those exceptional actresses that can make calculated acting look spontaneous. Every performance of hers feels precisely and accurately studied and it's always quite apparent that behind her performances there has been a careful preparation, but at the same time she never feels too technical, rehearsed or unsincere: she's one of those very unique actresses that can be both cerebral and emotional in their approach, both technical and raw. And this has rarely been more visible than in her performance in Howards End: there are definite mannerisms in both her physical work and her vocalization, yet it's one of the most delicate and hearfelt pieces of acting I have ever seen.
When we meet Ruth, it's already clear that she's seriously ill and that she is not going to live much longer. Redgrave is outstanding in her depiction of her character's physical condition: she has such a remarkable way of conveying the character's weakness through her body and she really gives you the impression that this woman is aching every step of the way. But what's most incredible is her voice work which is easy to take for granted but is actually quite an achievement: first off, her eloquent, refined way of speaking effectively establishes Ruth's background as a very wealthy, educated woman; moreover, her breathless delivery feels just right for a woman who is in such a painful state though she carefully never overdoes it either; at the same time though there is a spark in her voice that betrays the life-loving, radiant soul that lies beneath Ruth's tired, weak-willed appearence. Redgrave's understanding of the character is so deep that she manages to portray in her performance both the lively person that she used to be and the dying woman whose hunger for life has not waned. Redgrave's performance is short but she's so brilliant I felt like I had always known Ruth Wilcox.
Two things are requested from Redgrave to accomplish in this movie: the first one is to convey during her brief screen-time Ruth's infinite love for her house, Howards End, and the second one is to portray Ruth's affection for her burgeoise friend Margaret (Emma Thompson in an Oscar-winning performance), therefore bringing believability to her eventual choice to leave Howards End to her, even though she belongs to a lower class than hers. And Redgrave does both things astonishingly. Just take her very first scene in the movie, in which she is simply walking around Howards End: Redgrave's worldess acting in this scene is absolutely first-rate - she doesn't need any dialogue to convey the character's affection for the aforementioned place. She walks as if she were trying to capture every single moment she spends there forever into her memory. In later scenes, whenever the name Howards End pops up, Redgrave's face just lightens up, her voice filled with nostalgic fondness and her eyes sparkling with emotion. My favorite scene of her whole performance might be the one in which she tells Margaret of the myth of the pig's teeth at Howards End - it's such a beautifully understated moment that Redgrave plays with such a heartfelt delicacy it becomes one of the most poignant moments in he movie. And when she begs Margaret to come to see Howards End her performance turns absolutely heartbreaking - her delivery of "Come with now, now, come with me now" is absolutely devastating as it is so hopeful and enthusiastic in spite of Ruth's rapidly declining health.
Ruth's friendship with Margaret Schlegel is also one of the movie's most touching aspects as it is on one hand so unlikely and on the other hand so beautiful. Ruth and Margaret are two extremely different people: Ruth is an old-fashioned aristocratic (at one point she remarks that she doesn't think women should vote) while Margaret is a liberal thinker from the middle class. But they're both very kind-hearted and ultimately their bond overcomes their social differences. Both actresses are absolutely wonderful at portraying the friendship between the two characters - they share a lovely, poignant and sincere chemistry and create this beautiful, meaningful relationship that is the emotional crux of the movie in spite of Redgrave's very limited time on screen. Each of their interactions are absolutely heartwarmin to watch, especially the scene in which they go Christmas shopping together. You never doubt the emotional honesty of Ruth's and Margaret's affection for each other and when Ruth decides to leave Howards End to Margaret and not to her family it feels just the right and obvious outcome because of the deep connection that developed between the two. Redgrave's final scenes at the hospital are very low-key but Redgrave is absolutely wonderful in them as she brings so much grace and dignity to Ruth right up to her very final moment.
I know not everyone is impressed by this performance but personally I think it's an absolutely astonishing turn from one of the greatest actress ever. Ruth Wilcox could have been a mere plot device but Vanessa Redgrave creates a three-dimensional individual that becomes the movie's emotional crux. An elegant, subtle, delicate and heartbreaking portrayal that keeps haunting the movie even long after she has left.