HOWARDS END, with Emma Thompson, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter and Samuel West. Directed by James Ivory. At Astor and Columbia Classics. WHAT a pleasure it is to see this adaptation of E. M. Forster's bleak critique of the English way of life at the turn of the century attracting so much positive media, critical and box-office attention. The film is most definitely worthy of the praise it has received. Emma Thompson deserved to win the Best Actress Oscar as the garrulous Margaret Schlegel, a somewhat naive idealist transformed into a mature realist through the trials and tribulations of her marriage to the affluent Henry Wilcox (Sir Anthony Hopkins). As ever, Hopkins gives a thoroughly professional performance, although his portrayal of an ostensibly flawless gentleman forced to come to terms with a chequered past lacks commitment in the scenes where emotions break through the daunting facade of manners prevalent in England in the 1900s. This tension between the way an English gentle-person was meant to behave and the way English people, in fact, felt, is superbly dealt with throughou t. Angela's younger sister, Helen (Helena Bonham Carter), is more a prey to her passions than those around her and this inability to stave off more violent feelings is interpreted as madness. Indeed, in context, her passionate obsession with the pathetic clerk Leonard Bast (Samuel West) comes to resemble insanity even though it is only misplaced, badly-timed altruism. The richer, more genteel characters of Howards End break down spectacularly, collapsing under the weight of years of behaving in ''proper'' fashion: Margaret collapses to her knees, weeping, on hearing of her husband's infidelity, while Charles, Henry's malicious, small-minded son, commits manslaughter in a fit of rage. THE film also delicately balances Helen's charitable feelings toward the poor against her sister's inability to think of the lower classes as anything but outsiders. This class divide is exacerbated by the conviction of the working class (in the shape of the pitiful Bast) that they are never really accepted by the higher echelons of society, merely tolerated as novelties. Like Jane Austin, Forster was a master in portraying the passions that lie in wait for those tied to the manners of the English Parlour, and Howards End does a fine job of retaining much of the dramatic tension inherent in an overly-formalised society. As film adaptations of classic literature go, this must be one of the best.