'Howards End': TV Review

Fresh, focused, with great performances

Kenneth Lonergan's take on E.M. Forster's novel for Starz and BBC is a lovely, witty version that's less pomp-and-circumstance porn than the Merchant Ivory film.

You could make a convincing argument that the best remakes, particularly of classics, are those that reimagine the material more than merely remaking it. But the boldness in extreme departures also allows protection from comparisons. So maybe the more challenging route is take a revered favorite and just make it as great as you possibly can, not letting fear of scrutiny get in the way. That's precisely what writer Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea) and director Hettie Macdonald (Hit & Miss, Beautiful Thing) have done with Howards End, the Starz and BBC limited series that explores E.M. Forster's novel and competes in memory with the Oscar-winning Merchant Ivory film from 1992.

It's not a modern take on the Schlegel sisters or the uptight Wilcox family — though something set in 2018 might be thrillingly dangerous to conceive of; a variation on the theme was recently done in Matthew Lopez's two-part play The Inheritance. Instead, this version finds its updated modernity in very slight touches and a lower-key representational view of those Edwardian England days. Lonergan and Macdonald (writing and directing on all four episodes) eschew the higher-gloss Merchant Ivory production conceits — while retaining a very clear sense of time and place, there's less elaborate costuming and not every frame looks like lustrous period porn.

A less fussy, no-nonsense interpretation is maybe the shrewdest and most effective way to achieve distance from a film considered by most to be classic; just that very slight turning down of the pomp and circumstance makes this Howards End feel more muscularly real without having to transport it to the future.

And while there are more than a few nods in this new adaptation to be more inclusive of race (more on that later), it succeeds in feeling more "modern" primarily thanks to two outstanding performances by Hayley Atwell and Philippa Coulthard as Margaret and Helen Schlegel, a winning duo who shine from start to finish. They are wonderfully engaging and more fiercely independent in their views, forcibly refusing to stay in the shadows. That aspect is helped by Matthew Macfadyen deftly making his Henry Wilcox character staunchly opinionated but not a force that can't be moved or verbally neutered, a very subtle shading that was wise given how Atwell and Coulthard are clearly the beating heart of this retelling.

Lonergan is said to have insisted on no less than four hours to tell the story, perhaps because he felt it necessary to make some of the relationships more believable and naturally developing than in the film, which was half as long. He truly succeeds in that respect — again, deft casting and superb performances certainly helped, particularly because the gap between Atwell and Macfadyen, eight years in real life, doesn't read visually as so far apart.

Forster's 1910 story remains the same and Lonergan has said he felt comfortable creating believable new dialogue while using the bulk of the novelist's work as the backbone. The effort was in taking dated ideas about the sexes (above and beyond the larger issue of class that fuels the book, and some key British elements of property inheritance that are central to the plot) and making the intellectual curiosity and strong sense of social justice within the Schlegel sisters stand out. "You don't want to be apologizing for a book that was written in 1910, nor do you want to be writing material whose main purpose is to tell the audience that you don't agree with these views," Lonergan told The Times of London, addressing the challenges.

Much of the success in pulling that off is the way in which Coulthard and Atwell have made their characters self-aware of their class status but not afraid to express their views of social and economic injustice while also mingling with — and of course marrying into — rich families either oblivious to or disdainful of the poor and those who would have empathy for them. Those nuances are the linchpin of why Howards End works.

This newer version adds a few faces of color, notably Rosalind Eleazar in the role of Jacky Bast, Henry Wilcox's forgotten mistress, which adds a different layer to that past and the present of the tragic Leonard Bast (a keen performance from Joseph Quinn). But the updated casting doesn't give these characters any real agency.

And while Charles Wilcox (Joe Bannister) remains predictably annoying, Alex Lawther, who is so excellent in Netflix's The End of the F***ing World, is sublime comic relief as Tibby Schlegel. Julia Ormond as Mrs. Wilcox and Tracey Ullman as Aunt Juley also hold their own in limited minutes.

Expertly paced — no corners cut, but not flagging, either — and buoyed by subtle shifts in tone mostly rendered through fine performances, this new Howards End is both deftly separate from the classic and successful on its own merits.

Cast: Hayley Atwell, Philippa Coulthard, Matthew Macfadyen, Alex Lawther, Joe Bannister, Tracey Ullman, Julia Ormond, Bessie Carter, Joseph Quinn, Rosalind Eleazar, Johah Hauer-King, Donna Banya
Written by: Kenneth Lonergan, based on the novel by E.M. Forster
Directed by: Hettie Macdonald
Executive produced by: Colin Callender
Premieres: Sunday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (Starz)