Howards End (2017)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

Since I did not grow up loving the earlier big-screen adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel, I went into this miniseries with an open mind and it proved marvelous.

Since the death of their parents, Margaret (Hayley Atwell) has undertaken the task of managing her opinionated younger siblings. Helen (Philippa Coulthard) has a good heart, an ambitious mind, and rather enjoys a good argument, especially if someone can crush her opinions into oblivion. Her brother Tibby (Alex Lawther) is a high-minded philosopher who often believes he’s about to die from some minor ailment. With Helen away in the country visiting the Wilcox family, Margaret has peace and quiet until Helen writes that she’s engaged. Their concerned aunt rushes into the countryside to thwart it, only to find out Helen has called it off.

When the Wilcoxes move into a house up the street a few months later, Margaret tries to avoid the charismatic Henry (Matthew Macfayden) and his mild-mannered wife (Julia Ormond) but soon forms a friendship with the latter. Unbeknown to her, Mrs. Wilcox leaves Margaret her house, Howards End, in her will, but Henry burns the letter. He and Margaret become friends, and possibly more, while Helen becomes involved in the life of a hapless clerk, Leonard Bast (Joseph Quinn), little realizing the repercussions it will send through their lives.

Forster’s book is about hypocrisy and loyalty, about one woman torn between duty to her sister and her husband, and a man who refuses to see his own actions as comparable to the sins he sees in others; it’s not a happy or a miserable story, but instead simply a tale of a selfish family (the Wilcoxes) being brought to their knees through their own arrogance. There’s no real moral, and as such, this adaptation does as well as any other in translating it to the big screen; where former characterizations of Henry were simply brutish, Macfayden gives this one a soul and emotional resonance … you like him, even when you want to smack him over the head with Helen’s umbrella.

The costuming is quite good, and the music is decent; but the cast is what works. The story moves at a measured pace (some might call it slow, but I did not find it so) and I’d forgotten enough of the story for it to hold my interest, as I waited to find out what would happen. I suspect sentiment and loyalty toward the award-winning version from the 90’s has made people scoff at this, where it deserves more accolades than that. It’s a well written, well-acted period piece, full of characters of virtue and vice, none of whom are perfect. And that’s what I liked about it, the unflinching look at each character’s flaws (Mrs. Wilcox’s apathy, Henry’s hypocrisy in his immorality, Bast sticking with his mistress out of pity instead of love, Anne’s impulsiveness, and Margaret’s mistake in being ‘content’ with someone ‘just as he is’).

Sexual Content:
A man and woman live together outside of marriage; references to a man's mistress; a woman falls pregnant outside of wedlock.
 
Language:
None.
 
Violence:
A man shoves another man around, beats him with the flat side of a sword, and pushes him into a bookcase, which collapses on top of him.

Other:
Drinks at dinner.