I’m a proud fan of the Merchant-Ivory film adaptations, in particular “Howards End.” OK, they’re pornography for Anglophiles, all pretty vistas, elegant costuming, la-di-da aristocrats, and romantic conquest, just like the scoffers say. But, like the novels they’re based on, the films are also saturated with rich themes — regarding social ethics, class struggles, and women’s equality. The best of them — including “A Room With a View” — provoke critical thinking about human nature and relationships, alongside all the visual awe.
So I was skeptical about Starz’s new four-part adaptation of “Howards End,” since Merchant-Ivory seemed to have already delivered the best possible film version of E.M. Forster’s 1910 classic back in 1992. It won a ton of awards, including an Oscar for Emma Thompson, and it successfully got at the humor, wisdom, and mystery that underpin Forster’s storytelling. It re-created the wonderful muddles — moral and emotional — that Forster treasured deeply as a writer.
But it turns out that there are now two extraordinary adaptations of “Howards End” in the world, each remarkable and distinct. The Starz production, which premieres Sunday at 8 p.m., makes excellent use of the extra time that TV affords to add extra layers of detail — to the characterizations, to the relationships, to the dialogue, and to the larger social themes, which remain so relevant. The very unlikely relationship between the two central characters, the social-justice-minded Margaret Schlegel (Hayley Atwell) and the capitalist Henry Wilcox (Matthew Macfadyen), is ultimately quite believable and complex, given more screen time to develop. There are slow scenes here and there in the miniseries, which was directed by Hettie Macdonald of “Beautiful Thing” and written by Kenneth Lonergan of “Manchester by the Sea,” but they’re intentional and never dull.
The story is a slow-motion crash between three different factions, and the results raise the kinds of questions we still grapple with in a time of stubborn class distinctions and tensions. The Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen (Philippa Coulthard), are intellectuals and independent women who are curious about the world outside of their London home. They are, as we now say, in the bubble, but they want to see outside of it. They have liberal guilt. They take as their project the poor clerk Leonard Bast (Joseph Quinn) and his weak wife, Jacky (Rosalind Eleazar), thinking that by offering him pity and charity he’ll have a chance to rise to his potential. Meanwhile, they become intertwined with the upper class Wilcox clan, with their cold views on women and their scorn of the poor.
These collisions challenge the social order over and over again in “Howards End,” and the ensuing tangles are at times charming, usually when Margaret is involved, and at times disturbing, usually when Leonard is in the mix. The gorgeous screenplay includes a number of ongoing debates — between Margaret and Henry over money and compassion, between Margaret and Helen over the Wilcoxes and compromising in love — that yield all kinds of wit and insight. Margaret, so kind and even, always listens carefully during these standoffs; the others, not so much.
As Margaret, Atwell is extraordinary. She projects the warmth that Thompson did in the movie, but she also has more of an opportunity to bring us inside the heart and mind of a woman who is both fully independent and yet willing to tether herself to a man who is traditional about gender roles. One of the peaks of the miniseries is Atwell’s delivery of Margaret’s “only connect” speech to her sister, in the third episode, in which she explains that she is not going to try to reform Henry in their relationship. It’s a profound moment, about love and acceptance, and it’s written with sweet eloquence. Up until the choppy and speeded-up ending, Lonergan practically steals the show with his muscular, wit-filled lines.
The rest of the cast is aces, including Macfadyen, who refuses, as he should, to soften Henry’s crude and avoidant point of view. Coulthard brings the all-important rebel spirit to Helen, while Alex Lawther offers sly comic relief and a few dollops of cynical insight as the young Tibby Schlegel. As Aunt Juley, Tracey Ullman is well-cast in a small role, as is Julia Ormond as Ruth Wilcox. All together, they bring “Howards End” back to life, with all its bleak tragedy, affectionate irony, and hard-won ambiguities.
Starring: Hayley Atwell, Philippa Coulthard, Matthew Macfadyen, Tracey Ullman, Joseph Quinn, Alex Lawther, Bessie Carter, Rosalind Eleazar, Julia Ormond, Joe Bannister
On: Starz, Sunday at 8 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.