Dan Slevin says SoHo’s Howards End is a satisfyingly modern take on an Edwardian classic.
I felt certain that I had seen the famous cinema adaptation of Howards End but it wasn’t until I was almost at the end of episode one of the new BBC/Showtime adaptation that I realised how wrong I was.
Still, if someone was to relay details of that 1992 production – Merchant Ivory, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter, Oscars for Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay and for Emma Thompson’s performance – you too would feel like you’d seen it. It appears almost fully-formed in one’s mind’s eye.
And yet, here we are. I hadn’t actually seen it (and lazily skipped the book at university) so the plot of E.M. Forster’s Edwardian classic novel came as a pleasant surprise. This new version, adapted by Academy Award-winning scriptwriter Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester By the Sea) is surprisingly nimble when you consider it’s running time is double Ivory’s film and the characters all emerge as relatable to a modern audience and not preserved in nostalgic corsetry as they might have been.
Hayley Atwell, Philippa Coulthard and Alex Lawther play the Schlegel siblings – Margaret, Helen and Tibby respectively: children of a German migrant businessman who passed away, leaving them to be raised by Margaret, the eldest. They are educated, modern and relatively independent thanks to a solid but not excessive inheritance. They come into the orbit of the Wilcox family, owners of the romantic and slightly dilapidated country estate Howards End.
The Wilcoxes are upwardly-mobile however, thanks to patriarch Henry’s skills in business and, despite the Schlegel’s best efforts the relationship between the two families is an awkward fit – even as widowed Henry (Matthew Macfadyen) and Margaret prepare to marry. Meanwhile, poor salaryman Leonard Bast (Joseph Quinn) also seeks to improve himself with poetry and classical music but his mobility is destined to be thwarted. In this world, everyone but the Schlegels seem to be looking upwards.
Forster’s book was published in 1910 but this adaptation also has an eye on the impending Great War and the social and economic dislocation that will mean. It’s an excellent portrait of a world that’s poised on the brink of modernity but isn’t quite there yet.
Directed by television veteran Hettie Macdonald, the production is a handsomely mounted co-production between the BBC and American cable channel Starz and while it doesn’t scale the heights of the finest production values – there aren’t very many extras in the crowd scenes – the interiors and the costumes are all wonderful.
If I’m to quibble slightly, it’s that the casting for age appears to be a little uncertain. Atwell at 36 is about ten years too old for Margaret and Macfadyen as Henry seems to be about ten years too young. They’re both excellent, though, so that shouldn’t get in the way of your enjoyment too much and a rare dramatic appearance from the great comedian Tracey Ullman is just icing on the cake.
Howards End is playing on SoHo every Thursday night (with repeats during the rest of the week) but has dropped off the Neon “coming soon” list.