It’s difficult when you’re tasked with creating a new filmed version of one of the greatest novels ever written, which was itself already adapted into one of the great literary adaptations nearly three decades ago. As it is, the new Howards End, which premiered on the BBC last fall, and is now airing on Starz starting this Sunday, is quite good on its own, without quite measuring up to either the original work or the 1992 Merchant-Ivory film.
Starring Hayley Atwell as Margaret Shlegel and Mathew McFayden as Mr. Wilcox, this new miniseries is a lush, literate rendering of the book, which gets to include even more of it, due to the four one-hour episodes. Every extra moment with the Shlegel sisters and the Wilcox family they become entangled with is time well spent, and the novel’s themes of practicality and cold rationalization versus philosophy and art, juxtaposed against E.M. Forster’s ruminations on the British class system circa 1910 London are on display in all their worth, themes that have just as much resonance in today’s world. The Shlegel and Wilcox debates and the tragic consequences of their meddling in the life of poor Leonard Bast remain as effective as it ever was and ever will be in Forster’s exquisite and timeless prose.
But the characters are the heart of the story and are luckily played by fine performers in this new version. Hayley Atwell’s Margaret is a far tougher, more practical character than Emma Thompson’s, who emphasized the emotional flightiness of Margaret (and gave an Oscar winning performance in the original film), while this new version gives us a more hardlined, rational Meg who can easily withstand the tragedies and scandals that befall her family. Philippa Coulthard and Joseph Quinn play Helen Schlegel and Leonard Bast with an eager naivete and hopelessness that complement each other well, while 22-year-old Alex Lawther is in fine form as Tibby, the consistently bemused and laconic younger brother of Meg and Helen, who appears to have a far bigger part than I remember in either the previous film or even the book, and rightly so, since his scrappy way with a quip nearly steals the whole show (I was reminded of Hugh Laurie’s bit part as sarcastic Mr. Palmer in 1995’s Sense and Sensibility- fellow Austenites will surely know what I’m talking about).
The head of the Wilcox family is played splendidly by Mathew McFadyen (otherwise known as my Mr. Darcy), who nails the stiff yet well meaning, oblivious Henry with nuance and shades of good intentions not yet steered in the right direction that make him a fine successor to the character that Anthony Hopkins captured so well in the original film. Kenneth Lonergan’s script, directed in an easy, well paced manner by Hettie MacDonald, who helmed all four episodes, is a rich, very faithful adaptation that clearly conveys the themes and relationships drawn in the novel- lovers of the book will have no quibble with any attempts to take liberties on his part. There are really no liberties taken at all actually, except perhaps in one subtle regard- race was never mentioned in Forster’s novel but is here seen in the character of Leonard Bast’s wife Jackie, now played by Rosalind Eleazar, a black actress. I at first wondered if this was meant to make their marriage even more scandalous for the time, but this fact is never commented on in the show. It might have been more provocative (and interesting) to do so, but as that would require diverting a bit from the source material, here it can only be taken as a mild attempt to add diversity into the world created onscreen.
All in all, lovers of period costume drama will have a lovely, elegant new addition to the canon beginning Sunday night. I would urge everyone to tune in.