The first thing you’ll notice about Kenneth Lonergan’s superb adaptation is its speed — which is an odd and exciting quality for a four-hour British period drama that begins with, ends on, and is titled after an old house. The focus may be a stationary locale, but the pace is aptly quick. Before you can you stop to think “Why do we need another adaptation of ‘Howards End’?”, 15 minutes have flown by and you’re already enraptured by the Wilcox and Schlegel families.
Credit goes to all the elements that make similar genre fare stand out — the costumes, performances, telling glances, and detailed sets — but what makes this Starz limited series feel all its own is a conscious dismissal of certain civilities. There’s an extended stretch here or a loud cry there, as if the characters are physically poking holes in the stuffy atmosphere often crowding these period pieces as tightly as a maid ties the corset of her lady. Fans of elegant dresses and Victorian discourse could be so overwhelmed with the stunning ensembles and crackling dialogue, they may not appreciate how wonderfully disruptive Lonergan’s take can be.
“Howards End” is fun. It’s lean. It illustrates from the get-go that the Oscar-winning writer behind one of the biggest cinematic downers in recent memory (“Manchester By the Sea”) can write “heartwarming” as well as he writes “heart-wrenching.” But it also shows that he understands fundamental principles essential to the original story and its modern telling: First, he gets that the house isn’t an inanimate object, but a living, breathing entity. Lonergan crafts his scenes accordingly, filling them with vibrance by any means necessary. “Howards End” is about the house, and every detail of the series supports that.
As for the modernity, Lonergan finds that in highlighting the themes of class, equality, and women’s changing roles in both. For those unfamiliar with the novel or 1992 film, “Howards End” isn’t missing an apostrophe — the title is in reference to a country home of that name. Owned by the Wilcox family, the audience comes to know it through Helen Schlegel (Philippa Coulthard), who’s staying with the family and enters a brief engagement with Paul Wilcox (Jonah Hauer-King), the youngest son.
Helen writes home to her sister, Meg (Hayley Atwell) and brother, Tibby (“The End of the F***ing World’s” Alex Lawther) to share the news, but due to unexpected complications, Aunt Juley (Tracey Ullman) heads to Howards End in their stead. From there, the two families’ lives intertwine with the third — the Basts, primarily Leonard (Joseph Quinn). A struggling clerk, Leonard is down on his luck, but not without his pride, and his interactions with Meg and Helen are a wildly mixed bag of charged emotions.
You see, all three groups personify a different class as well as a unique ideology. The Wilcoxes are classically wealthy. Mr. Wilcox (Matthew Macfadyen) and Mrs. Wilcox (Julia Ormond) head a clan of businessmen and brides-to-be. They’ve made their money off the hard labor of others, though they give no one but themselves credit. Simply put, they are entitled and protective of their status the way the conservative and rich have always been cagey about sharing credit (or risking their own neck).
The Schlegels, meanwhile, are well-off but with a sense of responsibility. As Helen and then Meg become interested in the Wilcoxes, someone (often Tibby) is quick to point out their false bravado. (More than a few comments are made about rubber and exploiting the labor used to get it.) The Schlegels are aware of such things because they’re philanthropists always looking to help others in need. They see their money as a responsibility, not a right, and eventually, such advocacy comes to affect their relationship with Leonard Bast.
Meg and Helen claim their strength of character comes from continued education. While Meg occasionally worries spending her life arguing for social reform is a wasted effort, it doesn’t stop her from keeping up the fight. (Preach, Meg.) Equally important, it doesn’t keep her from empathizing with those who disagree with her. First, she bonds with Mrs. Wilcox, even though the older wife still believes “actions and decisions” should be left to men. Later, she connects with Mr. Wilcox, despite her sister (accurately) claiming he “tears apart” everything they were raised to believe in.
There’s a lesson here about tearing down walls instead of building them up, but it’s also important to take note of Meg’s feminism. Seen by her aunt as a woman who threw away her youth “on your independence,” Meg is a 28-year-old single woman who’s judged for it; she lives with her siblings in a house, and neither she nor her sister has a husband. It’s not that either doesn’t want one, but that they won’t settle for any common caller.
Lonergan’s script deftly illustrates the opportunities Meg and Helen could have had if not for the time they lived in. At one point, Helen is speaking to Leonard and she says, “I blame not your wife for these [problems], but men.” It’s a statement that could be more sweepingly applied, and yet is a notably brave thing to say in the moment. Women, for the most part, are supportive of one another in “Howards End”; it’s powerfully clear how much the sisters mean to each other and how much their friends mean to them. It’s also evident what they could accomplish without the hindrance of societal repression — in other words, the patriarchy, or even simpler, men.
Parallels abound to present day, as all excellent historical updates do, but before closing one thing needs to be absolutely clear: For the extraordinary work done by Lonergan and director Hettie MacDonald, Hayley Atwell makes an equally indelible impact in the lead role. Ever present with her scene partners and actively reflective when on her own, the “Agent Carter” star tears into this part such a joyful ferocity you’d be hard-pressed not to want more. Luckily, we will undoubtedly see more of Atwell in the future, since a four-episode “Howards End” proves to be a perfectly expeditious length.
“Howards End” premieres Sunday, April 8 at 8 p.m. ET on Starz.