If you came of age in the ‘90s and have even the slightest proclivity for Edwardian blouses, then let’s reminisce together about the lucious pile of frizzed brunette ringlets cascading from Helena Bonham Carter’s head in the original Merchant Ivory Howards End. They were, for any woman with a hint of curl to her hair, a revelation — as was the entire character, with her pluck and open desire and hardheadedness. As Helen Schlegel, a woman who feels everything far too deeply and just yearns to fix the world’s injustices, Bonham Carter, with her sweeping skirts and delicate countenance, created a romantic heroine for a generation. Tuning in to any new version requires casting Bonham Carter’s performance to the back of my brain so it doesn’t overpower its successor, but damn, it’s hard. Any remake will be hard-pressed to prove its necessity.
After one episode, this new Howards End it hasn’t entirely proven its case, but it certainly has promise. There’s a general overeagerness in the costumes (need Helen wear that giant red tam-o-shanter on every outing?), the dialogue, and the production. But the adaptation is faithful where it ought to be and flexible when it needs to be. It isn’t the original, but it isn’t some paltry imitation, either.
In the rush to feed audiences desperate for more Downton Abbey--accented fare, it makes sense to revive Howards End. Written by E.M. Forster (the traditionalist of the Bloomsbury Group) in the years immediately preceding World War I, it’s the story of three families, each representative of a different British class, who come together in unexpected ways and — not to sound too much like the back of a drugstore novel — forever change one another’s lives. It’s also a story about the last heady days of true empire in Britain, before the bombs of the Somme split Europe in two and sent England’s class structure down the drain. So the England of Howards End is still the genteel succor that we Americans look to for relief from the sweatpants-wearing masses of contemporary life. To be more blunt, there are corsets, windswept coasts, and drawing rooms, so sign me up!
We meet the Wilcoxes as if they were characters in a novel that Helen Schlegel (Philippa Coulthard) is composing. There’s Charles (Joe Bannister), the elder son who practices his piss poor croquet skills on the lawn, only to be silently outdone by his much more accomplished father Henry (Matthew MacFadyen, of Mr. Darcy fame). Then Evie (Bessie Carter), the daughter, who chimes into the unspoken competition with her upper-body calisthenics. Mrs. Wilcox, their center of gravity, floats in last, a vision in a kimono brought gorgeously to life by Julia Ormond. Paul (Jonah Hauer-King), the younger son, is away at first, but quickly arrives — and lives up to Helen’s expectation that he is the handsomest of the bunch.
Considering this adaptation has four hours to cover this 300-page novel, it’s somewhat disheartening that the first scene with Margaret (Hayley Atwell), her Aunt Juley (Tracey Ullman), and hay-fever-addled younger brother Tibby (Alex Lawther, whom you may remember as the young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game and the teenage, savagely damaged Christopher Robin in Goodbye Christopher Robin) is such an example of telling and not showing. Aunt Juley wonders how the Schlegel sisters came to meet the Wilcoxes. Margaret explains that they became companions on a disastrous jaunt in Germany and have been since invited out to Howards End. Aunt Juley tsk tsks the “independent” nature of the Schlegel sisters. Margaret reminds Aunt Juley that her parents are dead, and hey, she’s doing the best she’s can. And thus we get the lay of the land.
The tension at the center of Howards End, of course, is the antagonistic relationship between the Schlegel’s values (intellect, beauty, change) and the Wilcox’s values (practicality, self-reliance, stability). Helen makes this clear in her first letter: Mr. Wilcox, she explains, runs the Imperial and West African Rubber Company and “says the most horrid things so nicely — in five minutes, he took up everything we were raised to believe in and ripped it entirely to shreds.” Socialism? Bosh! Women’s suffrage? Bosh! (Can we get a petition going to bring back bosh?) In short, as a rich, entitled white man, Henry Wilcox’s ethos is that everything ought to remain the same, with the oppressed nicely gated off so that they might know beautiful homes like Howards End exist, but ought not ever try to step foot in one unless it’s to clear the tea things.
Helen, however, seduced by the charm of a nuclear family gathered ‘round the walnut dining table, falls in love with the idea of the family. And then she falls in love — embarking on what is most likely the briefest engagement in literature — with Paul Wilcox himself.
The scene of telegrams going back and forth (this was during the period of time when the Royal Mail was so vital to national communication that parcels were delivered twice a day) lays the groundwork for that most vital pleasure of a historical film: Without texting and the telephone, problems have time to brew. So when Helen writes home that she has fallen for Paul, but offers no clarity on exactly what they mean to do, there’s an entire evening in which Margaret and Aunt Juley can worry and plot. Sent in Margaret’s stead with strict instructions not to bungle anything by even daring to speak to a Wilcox, Aunt Juley does just that, mistaking Charles for his brother and alerting the whole clan to the fact that Helen not only dared to ensnare their catch of a brother, but also sent a letter advertising this fact wayyyyy too soon. It’s actually a really modern problem if you think about it: Nobody wants to be the more excited half in a new relationship.
You see the worst of the Wilcoxes in Charles’s reaction. And Helen rightfully turns on the whole family afterwards, telling Margaret that she sees Mr. Wilcox as directing his “toy soldier” children. Tibby, whose sloth and tactlessness are the stuff of legends, not-so-helpfully points out that now Helen has no marriage prospects. As for Margaret, well, she’s basically a corpse at the ripe old age of 29, so she might as well start taking in the stray cats now.
As if these aren’t enough #uppercrustproblems, at a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Helen runs off with a stranger’s umbrella (apparently she is a minor kleptomaniac) and then insults the state of said umbrella so terribly that he runs off, too scared to stay for tea.
The young man is Leonard Bast (Joseph Quinn), who heads home to a flat that now would rent for £2,500 per month in gentrified East London, but at the turn of the 20th century would have constituted the very bottom rung on the middle-class ladder. Bast, as Margaret notes later, keeps pulling down his jacket sleeves so to cover up a fraying cuff, and has the most frightfully ordinary views about art. The Schlegels, especially Margaret, are captivated by him but in a pitying way, as if they want to prop him up on their sofa and learn all about him so that they might better his manners. But just as Helen fell in love with Wilcoxes, it’s apparent that in the moment Leonard steps into the Schlegel’s elegant foyer — on what would have been a relatively posh London square — he sees an alternative, albeit unlikely, future for himself as a man of the arts whose time is spent cultivating his intellect instead of whiling away his hours as a insurance-company clerk.
But standing in his way is Jacky (Rosalind Eleazar), his paramour, whose Cockneyesque accent immediately sets her apart as of a lower class. Leonard just wants to read, dammit, but Jacky’s petting and neediness — she needs him to remind her that yes, he will marry her the day he turns 21 — have obviously extinguished any flames he once carried for her in his, ahem, heart?
Back on Wickham Place, Margaret learns that the Wilcoxes have taken a London flat for the season and for their son’s wedding — and that flat is rather awkwardly located juuuuuust around the corner. (Funnily enough, the two streets that are depicted as “just around the corner” in the London of Howards End aren’t actually near one another at all.) In fact, as Aunt Juley so unhelpfully points out, you can see their damn living room from the Schlegels’ window!
Is Helen still torn up about Paul? Despite her protestations, perhaps a bit, and she sure is chuffed that she’ll need to bow to him if she sees him in the street. Helen is too strong a young woman to let it miff her, but that cad asked her to marry him and then just froze like a baby deer in the woods the next morning at breakfast. In the annals of unfortunate breakups, that one takes the cake, especially since, oh, you know, Helen happened to be staying in his family’s house as a guest! But I digress…
Luckily, Helen is headed for another trip to Germany and Paul — a true colonizer if there ever was one — is off to make his fortune in Nigeria, a fact that Margaret learns after yet another communicative kerfuffle with Mrs. Wilcox.
But when she rushes out to call on Mrs. Wilcox, who is “taking a day in bed” like a boss, the two strike up a delightful little friendship despite the discomfort. Even a lunch at which Mrs. Wilcox declares that she “sometimes thinks it is wiser to leave action and discussion to men,” in front of Margaret’s progressive, bohemian cadre ends in laughter. These two women, the living embodiments of their respective families’ diametric value systems, just like one another.
So when Mrs. Wilcox invites Margaret to see Howards End on a whim, it’s like a smack in the face for Margaret to decline on grounds of weather and timing. Her decision to rush out the door and meet Mrs. Wilcox at the station is a message of her devotion. But the women are deterred by the unexpected arrival of Evie and Mr. Wilcox at the train, and Margaret sees that for all her rapture over Howards End, Mrs. Wilcox is primarily a wife and mother, a woman firmly made for the years before 1910, whereas Margaret is a creature of the future.