Howards End review – timely, careful remake explores class and race
Question at the core of EM Forster’s work of who will inherit England has perhaps never been as relevant since he first posed it
The opening episode of Howards End was a more sober affair than Merchant Ivory’s 1992 rendition.
Sunday 12 November 2017 22.00 GMT Last modified on Monday 13 November 2017 01.05 GMT
Time is a funny thing. To watch the most famous film version of EM Forster’s Howards End now is to watch the 1910 novel overlaid with another layer of history. Merchant Ivory’s rendition came out in 1992 and cemented the pair’s reputation – born in 1985 with their adaptation of Forster’s A Room With a View – as the purveyor of sumptuous Edwardian goods for the contemporary masses.
To watch it now is to be almost overwhelmed by the branding. Every scene is limned in golden sunlight, every costume ripples and rustles to perfection, hair is huge, vowels are rounded and wherever you turn either Helena Bonham-Carter or Vanessa Redgrave are Bonham-Cartering or Redgraving to the fullest limits of the law.
Sunday night’s opening episode of the keenly awaited BBC adaptation of Howards End (four parts, broadcast the old-fashioned way, one a week) was a more sober affair. The weather was non-uniform, the wigs did not need separate billing and the clothes – while still Edwardianly gorgeous – looked like they might survive more than one day’s shooting of the story of the gradual entwining of the Wilcox, Schlegel and Bast families intact.
In the first episode we have the fleeting engagement of Helen Schlegel (wonderfully played by Philippa Coulthard, whose youthful enthusiasm already contains hints of the perilous idealism to come) to a Wilcox son – which is better delineated here than in the film as an outcropping of her infatuation with the whole family – its awkward aftermath and the growing friendship between Margaret Schlegel and Mrs Wilcox. Again, this is developed at greater length than in the film, which will surely make coming events more credible, aided by the fact that the characters here are played, respectively, by Hayley Atwell and Julia Ormond, with all of those actors’ customary intelligence and commitment. Helen has her first intimation of the ultimate futility of life during Beethoven’s 5th – goblins! We’re all just goblins, tumbling around the earth! – and pulls poor Leonard Bast (played by Joseph Quinn more as a simpleton, so far, than a member of the lower middle class) into the chain of events by running off with his umbrella.
One new element that has been added is the presence of characters of colour. The doctor called to examine Mrs Wilcox is Indian. The Schlegels’ maid, Annie, is black (and evidently not fully accepted by their other servants) and Bast greets a black man, dressed as he is, in the street as a social equal.
It moves at a stately pace – possibly shading into plodding at times. A careful, almost worthy air hangs round it but this may disperse once the plot – such as it is – gets going next week.
That said, it is a timely remake. Though some of the finer points of Edwardian class distinctions and propriety may elude us at this distance, the question at the core of Forster’s work of who will inherit England, has perhaps never been as relevant since he first posed it, and the introduction of non-white characters connects it more emphatically to the present.
In the Wilcox and Schegel clans, Forster enshrined two faces of the upper class – the former pragmatic, staid, patriotic, conventional; the latter romantic, intellectual, curious, kind and slightly flighty – but united by the unthinking privilege that social status and money bring. And in Leonard Bast he displayed the lower orders; unprotected, at the mercy of forces beyond their control and just a misstep or missed pay packet away from disaster.
This new version also hints at immigration as a new source of possible inheritors of the earth. Howards End, in whatever form you read or watch it, is an examination of how the rich get the gravy and the poor get the blame. More than a century after publication, the day is not yet come when this cannot strike a chord. Time is a funny thing.
Howards End radiated quality at every turn – review
12 NOVEMBER 2017 • 10:00PM
The biggest surprise of BBC One’s new adaptation of EM Forster’s much loved Howards End was just how fresh, contemporary and relevant it felt despite the period costumes and elaborate formalities of its Edwardian setting.
Certainly, the decision to have the American writer Kenneth Lonergan (whose Manchester By the Sea won the Oscar for best original screenplay this year) adapt it paid off, as the clarity of his approach seemed unencumbered by preconceptions of Forster’s novel and his analysis of the tectonic shifts of British class and society.
The story opened with young, intellectual Helen Schlegel (Philippa Coulthard) writing gushingly to her sister Margaret (Hayley Atwell) from the sun-kissed environs of Howards End, country home of the Wilcox family, who had invited her to visit.
The thrusting, materialistic, nouveau riche Wilcoxes were like an exotic species to the cultured, idealistic Helen, who was instantly intoxicated by their difference. She might as well have been a “remoaner” seduced by a gang of devil-may-care Brexiteers. So when she announced by telegram that she had fallen in love with one of them, panic set in among the Shlegels and formidable Aunt Juley (Tracey Ullman dialling down her Angela Merkel) was dispatched to sort things out.
After this amusing set-up, the drama grew subtler. Though the engagement was broken off, the lives of the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes became ever more entangled when the Wilcoxes took an apartment near the Shlegels in London, and Margaret and Mrs Wilcox’s friendship deepened.
Hayley Atwell shone out as the well-intentioned if emotionally repressed Margaret. But she was matched by Matthew Macfadyen, bluffly charismatic as Wilcox paterfamilias Henry, and Julia Ormond exuding maternal poise as his wife.
Add to that a deliberate restraint in the production (not the standard period-drama lushness) that felt just right, and director Hettie Macdonald seemed hardly to put a foot wrong. Even so, one would hope the key character of insurance clerk Leonard Bast (Joseph Quinn) will get more rounded treatment as things progress.
Other than that quibble, this was a drama that radiated quality at every turn. From the outset there was a sense of vivid intelligence at work, a tangible impression that this is a piece in which ideas really matter. For now, though, the most obvious fun was in judging how little in some ways, and enormously in others, Britain has changed in the 100 years or so since Forster wrote his novel. The metropolitan elite still chatter away ineffectually; business folk still cut a swathe through much that is precious in pursuit of wealth. Together, somehow, we all limp on.