Hayley Atwell in Howards End.
“My darling sister, it isn’t going to be at all what was expected.”
So writes a character in the new Howards End, a BBC mini-series adapted from E.M. Forster’s novel by screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea) and director Hettie Macdonald (Doctor Who), and airing over the next four Sundays on Starz. This is a subtly audacious way to kick off a fresh version of a beloved story, and in the end, the production mostly delivers.
The letter in question is written by Helen Schlegel (Philippa Coulthard) to her older sister Margaret (Hayley Atwell), letting her know that she’s decided to break off her impulsive engagement to Paul Wilcox (Jonah Hauer-King), son of industrialist Henry Wilcox (Matthew Macfadyen). The Schlegels and the Wilcoxes met while vacationing in Germany, and while it seems as though the families’ trajectories will diverge after that, they remain intertwined thanks to Margaret becoming friends with Henry’s ailing wife, Ruth (Julia Ormond), after the Wilcoxes take a flat in London not far from the Schlegels. Ruth impulsively wills the titular family estate to Margaret, believing that she will appreciate and care for it more diligently than her blood family.
The Basts enter the picture when young Leonard Bast (Joseph Quinn), a 20-year-old insurance clerk, attends a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in the same row with Margaret, Helen, and their kid brother Tibby (Alex Lawther). Helen is overcome with emotion and bolts the instant the performance concludes, accidentally swiping Leonard’s umbrella, which of course necessitates Margaret contriving the circumstances of its return. Leonard lives in a tiny apartment with his girlfriend Jacky (Rosalind Eleazar). He feels responsibility toward her, yet also plainly resents her as uncouth, a drag on him generally, and beyond the kind of evolution he seeks for himself. (Forster seemed to treat Jacky mainly as a casualty of Edwardian-era colonial capitalism.) Leonard’s social aspirations and the Schegels’ do-gooder streak combine to produce a number of troublesome plot developments. The Wilcoxes provide further plot complications when Ruth dies (this is not really a spoiler, as Ormond plays the character as if she’s on her last legs from frame one). Then Henry becomes smitten with Margaret, and she with him, and he has to decide whether he wants to welcome a half-German with revolutionary sympathies into his grieving moneybags family, and reveal that Ruth willed her the house and he never told her.
Like so much Forster, Howards End is hugely involving even though 90 percent of it consists of people talking in rooms and reading letters. Lonergan and Macdonald keep things moving along at an unhurried but steady clip, and make some of the necessary exposition more dynamic via that filmmakers’ trick of cutting between letters being read to others, those same letters being written, and present-tense visualizations of the events being described by the letter writer. Merchant Ivory’s Forster adaptations are clear stylistic touchstones here, as is Martin Scorsese’s 1993 adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, which this mini-series quotes in a slow-motion sequence of Leonard Bast walking to work down gray London streets, just one black-suited, bowler-hatted drone among many. The actors are true to the characters but never duplicate anything that was done before. Quinn is particularly intriguing: His anxious, slightly resentful face indicates how much of Leonard’s desire for upward mobility is motivated by resentment. Atwell and Coulthard make the Schlegels inquisitive, smart, and socially engaged but also a bit tone-deaf in ways that didn’t register quite as strongly in Merchant Ivory’s classic 1992 film. Macfadyen’s Henry Wilcox is considerably more unlikable than Anthony Hopkins’s version, so much so that he borders on insufferable in certain scenes. He’s altogether much more of an arrogant lecturer type, interrupting and talking over women, and treating his money as a sort of de facto royal cloak shielding him from censure or even argument. Only his sad eyes make him sympathetic.
Incredibly, rather than render the Henry-Margaret love story unbelievable or unsympathetic, these changes complicate it in ways that are enhanced by small but striking embellishments to the script. Issues of social class run throughout Forster’s novel — there’s much discussion of social mobility, the responsibility of the fortunate toward the less fortunate, the morality of the redistribution of wealth, and the need for culture to be democratically accessible, and at various points in the story, accusations of condescension, exploitation, indifference, and cruelty get tossed around when one character mistreats or runs afoul of another — but there are no characters of color in the novel, which means that class gets examined without the complication of race. This is not a knock on Forster, nor should it be considered a failing. It’s merely characteristic of how white English novelists, even sensitive ones, told their stories at that time, and the Merchant Ivory adaptation imported that lens to their film version. The latest edition takes two minor characters whose race was assumed to be white in Forsters’s novel and makes them black: Jacky Bast (who represents herself to the Schlegels as Leonard’s wife) and one of the Schlegels’ maids.
This is not a huge difference in the greater scheme, but it makes all the mini-series’ casual references to African rubber plantations, international shipping, and capital pop more. (Speaking of a silver vinaigrette given to Margaret by Henry, Helen sarcastically says, “I’m sure the silver didn’t come from an African silver mine,” and Tibby adds, “I’m sure somebody died making it.”) It also recontextualizes the many conversations between the Schlegels and the Basts about money, so that we think about the colonialism and racism that the characters would rather not discuss. Even the poorest white character in this Howards End is better off than the unseen black Africans toiling on the Wilcoxes’ rubber plantations. This realization doesn’t detract from our feelings for the Basts, but it does make us think about things that Leonard probably doesn’t.
You don’t have to ask yourself why somebody like Margaret, who believes in women’s suffrage and has a touch of the social worker’s mentality, would fall for a rich reactionary like Henry, despite him casually telling her that if all the income in the world were suddenly equitably redistributed, it would ultimately end up in the hands of whoever originally had it. We see that the two characters are more similar to each other than either is to Leonard, and that all three have it better than Jacky. In the second episode, Jacky finds Margaret’s calling card in one of Leonard’s books and storms over to the Schlegels’ home, intending to chastise Margaret for the affair she worries that Leonard is having, only to discover that she gave him the card after the umbrella incident. An inconsiderate joke about the Schlegels being worried that Leonard would steal the silver flips Jacky’s sympathies, so that she identifies with the white lover that, mere moments ago, she suspected of being unfaithful. (Surely she’s no stranger to being wrongly accused of stealing.) Changing that single detail of Jacky’s race takes a moment that’s all about class and transforms it into a moment about how class alone doesn’t tell us the whole story of Edwardian England, or about any society. In an earlier scene where Jacky presses Leonard about why he hasn’t married her yet, Leonard protests that he doesn’t feel he’s old enough or established enough yet; if Jacky were white, we’d take him at his word, but here, we wonder if there isn’t something else going on. Purists may balk that such touches amount to an inappropriate superimposition of modern intersectional sensibilities on an almost century-old text. But if Gothic fiction can plausibly be described as a coded response to suppressed moral panic over England’s colonial fortunes, then it doesn’t strike me as terribly out of bounds to think that such ideas could be comfortably considered in Howards End, too — especially when you realize that Forster was more than halfway there, anyway.
The comparatively extended length of the enterprise — four hours, versus two hours and 22 minutes for the ’92 film — allows for a detailed and unhurried experience, and the storytellers take advantage of the lengthened timeline, even if they sometimes fail to put emphasis in the right spots. (A narratively crucial love story blossoms instantly in both the film and the mini-series, but I was more accepting of it in the film because every element is compacted; here it feels rushed because it’s juxtaposed with scenes where people spend full minutes contemplating lockets or discussing socialism.) All in all, the new Howards End is a fresh take on an old source, and the longer it goes on, the more different, even special, it gets.