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Finding Common Ground on ‘Howards End’

The charming BBC (by way of Starz) adaptation is also an empathetic story about negotiating differences of class, politics, and even general disposition

Starz/Ringer illustration

The best current show about bridging partisan divides isn’t a multi-camera sitcom on ABC. It’s an elegant, eloquent costume drama on Starz, imported from the BBC and written by an Oscar-winning playwright. An adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1910 AP Lit staple written by Kenneth Lonergan and directed by Hettie Macdonald, the miniseries—which finishes its four-part run on Sunday—comfortably fills the shoes last occupied by legendary filmmaking duo Merchant-Ivory, who helmed the 1992 feature. (More recently, Zadie Smith based her 2005 academic farce On Beauty on Forster’s work.) Working with a slightly expanded canvas, Lonergan deftly traces the intermingling of three loosely connected British families: the Schlegels, half-German siblings who’ve formed a tight-knit, non-traditional household in the years after their parents’ death; the Wilcoxes, moneyed business-folk with no time for art or sentiment; and the Basts, a working-class couple who get caught up between the two.

This is, to say the least, an unlikely setup for a cathartic story that can soothe the anxieties of a 21st-century American viewer. As a philistine whose preferred form of accented entertainment is more Game of Thrones than Downton Abbey, I’ve nonetheless been pleasantly surprised by just how charming I’ve found Howards End. Much of its appeal rests on the nimble script, fully realized production values, and an electric lead performance from Hayley Atwell, who brings an animated intelligence to eldest Schlegel child, Margaret. But Howards End is also an empathetic story about negotiating differences of class, politics, and even general disposition that seem insurmountable on their face. Mistakes are made; relationships are strained to their breaking point. Ultimately, though, connection is possible.

While the Basts hail from the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum, it ought to be noted that the distinctions between the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels are somewhat limited by their shared membership of a rarefied social milieu. The Wilcoxes are certainly wealthier, with patriarch Henry’s (Matthew Macfadyen) successful ventures underwriting multiple properties, including the country refuge that gives the series its name. Still, the Schlegels are more than comfortable; even without their parents to support them, they live off of an income generous enough to pay for a central London address, multiple servants, and a freedom from the obligation to work.

It’s in how the two families choose to use their leisure time that their divergence starts to manifest. The Schlegels are, in our contemporary parlance, bleeding-heart liberals, an orientation obvious in both their aesthetics and their politics. The siblings play music, discuss art and literature, and attend the symphony. Lone brother Tibby (The End of the F***ing World’s Alex Lawther, showing his range) disapprovingly notes the unethical nature of the rubber trade in which Mr. Wilcox has invested, while younger sister Helen (Philippa Coulthard) has a sense of injustice that prompts her to involve herself in the life of Leonard Bast (Joseph Quinn), an insurance clerk struggling to support his young wife.

The Wilcoxes, by contrast, are small-c conservatives in the most timeless sense of the term. Henry, his wife Ruth (Julia Ormond), and their three children are myopic materialists, less malicious than simply closed-minded. Henry has the classic bootstrap mentality of a rich man well past his salad days, insisting Leonard has no one to blame for his circumstances except himself. The family can be egalitarian in its practices, but not its politics; as Helen observes with fascination, Ruth is the de facto head of the family, yet she also believes a woman’s place is at home, not in the public sphere. Much to the independence-minded Margaret’s shock and surprise, she opposes women’s suffrage, as dependable a litmus test for 20th-century English political alignments as any.

And yet, despite their dissimilarities, the Schlegels and Wilcoxes find themselves drawn ever closer together—sometimes by coincidence, but increasingly by choice. Helen claims to disdain the Wilcoxes and their values, yet it is she who first forges the connection, staying at Howards End and entering into an abortive engagement with Wilcox son Paul (Jonah Hauer-King). Ruth and Margaret strike up a brief, unlikely friendship, a platonic relationship between an older and a younger woman it’s almost disorienting to see afforded the primacy Lonergan and Macdonald give it. And when Ruth falls victim to an illness, Margaret and Henry form an even less predictable bond. Disagreements are easy to cling to in principle, but they’re so often muddied by the mysteries of interpersonal attraction—romantic, intellectual, or both.

Howards End is an expert comedy of errors, laying the groundwork for more deep-seated conflicts with telling miscommunications; Margaret is touched when Charles Wilcox (Joe Bannister) asks if his mother ever mentioned wanting to leave her anything, unaware that he’s probing to see if she knows Ruth wanted her to have Howards End. But some blunders have real stakes, and Howards End conveys its characters’ intentions and their culpability in equal measure. Even if sanctimony factors into Helen’s behavior, she’s clearly motivated by a sincere, idealistic sense of obligation to her fellow man. That doesn’t excuse her once she crosses the line into meddling. Howards End is grounded in the Schlegels’ point of view more than the Wilcoxes’, but it never places the blame for their clashes entirely on one side.

As with so many literary classics and the adaptations they inspire, Howards End operates with a restraint that comes as both a reprieve and a major adjustment for viewers used to more sensational fare. Margaret and Henry don’t so much as kiss until well after Henry has proposed marriage, and one episode films two characters shuttering a window with all the sensual intimacy of a love scene. Somehow, this buttoned-up sensibility doesn’t dull the intensity of the story’s meeting of the minds—it magnifies it. Howards End feels no need to amplify the gulf between the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes, nor their eventual conciliation. The show merely depicts the halting, haphazard, deeply human ways they, and anyone, find common ground in spite of themselves.