TV review: Howards End miniseries couldn’t be timelier

Four-part adaptation of E.M. Forster's classic Edwardian-era novel looks at whether people of different political stripes can get along

HOWARDS END (Hettie Macdonald). Begins airing Sunday (October 28), 9 pm, on SuperChannel. Rating: NNNN

Downton Abbey viewers missing their fix of Edwardian-era costumes and complex class struggles will devour this sumptuous, sensitive four-part adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel.

While the book will forever be associated with the Oscar-winning 1992 version, the themes couldn’t be timelier, dealing with the disparity between the rich and the poor and the question of whether people from different political stripes can get along.

Two contrasting families – the progressive, art-loving Schlegels, headed by older sister Margaret (Hayley Atwell), and the staid, conservative Wilcoxes, ruled by the wealthy industrialist Henry (Matthew Macfadyen) – find their lives linked over a few years.

First there’s an awkward and quickly aborted romance between Margaret’s impulsive sister Helen (Philippa Coulthard) and one of the Wilcox sons (Jonah Hauer-King). Later, Margaret befriends the dreamy, philosophical Ruth Wilcox (Julia Ormond). And finally, years after Ruth’s death (although it’s not clear how much time has elapsed in this version), Margaret and Henry find themselves drawn to one another, even though Helen detests everything the Wilcoxes stand for.

Meanwhile, in a subplot, the Schlegels are wracked with guilt over the fate of a lower-middle-class clerk named Leonard Bast (Joseph Quinn), whose life they have irrevocably altered because of a bad piece of advice given casually by Henry Wilcox.

Perhaps because he’s an American and hence removed from the British class system, script writer Kenneth Lonergan cuts to the heart of the material, especially around matters of wealth and poverty. In one of the most affecting sequences, he even finds a way to integrate Forster’s enigmatic epigraph to the novel – “Only connect” – into the dialogue.

He also picks up and runs with one of the subtle threads in the book, about the Wilcoxes’ colonial exploits, something that director Hettie Macdonald emphasizes in the sensitive, ethnically diverse casting of secondary characters.

While there’s a fluid, graceful momentum to the series, it lacks the vivid imagery from the Merchant-Ivory film. Who can forget the umbrella sequence played out to Beethoven’s Fifth?

But the acting is superb. Atwell, radiating charm and intelligence, holds the film together as the responsible Margaret, and she has a funny, believable rapport with Coulthard’s spirited Helen. Quinn will break your heart as the principled, inarticulate Leonard, who’s intrigued yet intimidated by the Schlegels’ world.

No one can compete with Vanessa Redgrave’s Ruth, but Ormond brings an openness and sincerity to the part that feels fresh.

While Macfadyen is a little young to be playing Wilcox – he’s only eight years older than Atwell, whereas Anthony Hopkins had 22 years on Emma Thompson in the earlier film – he’s properly stuffy and dismissive and clueless about his emotional life. A scene early in episode three is so well done – awkward, funny, romantic – that you’ll want to rewatch it several times just to savour the actors’ performances.

One word about the series length: four hour-long episodes is the perfect length for this material. It’s long enough to include little grace notes, but not too long to ever feel padded.

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