A ‘Howards End’ True to Then and Now

GODALMING, England — With a surprisingly cheerful air, the director Hettie Macdonald surveyed the damply gray British version of a spring day. “What can you do?” she said. “It’s England!”

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A ‘Howards End’ True to Then and Now
, New York Times

GODALMING, England — With a surprisingly cheerful air, the director Hettie Macdonald surveyed the damply gray British version of a spring day. “What can you do?” she said. “It’s England!”

The uncooperative weather last May, in this verdant, wooded region roughly 30 miles southwest of London, had forced a change in the shooting schedule for “Howards End,” a new, four-part television series based on E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel. Rather than filming some of the final outdoor scenes in the garden of a beautiful old house here, Macdonald was attending to the setup of an indoor shot of a well-to-do family at breakfast. “Those plates are too shiny, use some dulling spray,” she said. “But not on the eggs!”

As Macdonald’s obsessing demonstrates, this new version of “Howards End,” which debuts Sunday on Starz, is a faithful rendering of the novel in terms of period detail (not to mention story and dialogue). But this adaptation, by the writer and director Kenneth Lonergan (“Manchester by the Sea,” “You Can Count on Me”), is a rather more bracing vision of Forster’s tale of class, money and sexual mores among three families from different social strata, with obvious current correspondences: a seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the haves and the have-nots; social and sexual constraints on women; the rigidity of class divisions.

The story will be known to many via the Merchant-Ivory film of the book, which starred Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins and won three Oscars in 1993. For the Starz series those roles are played by Hayley Atwell (best-known as Agent Peggy Carter in the Marvel blockbuster franchise) as the warmly intelligent and idealistic Margaret Schlegel, and Matthew Macfadyen (“MI-5”) as Henry Wilcox, the confident captain of industry whom she will eventually marry.

Colin Callender, whose company, Playground Entertainment, produced the series (in association with City Entertainment and KippSter Entertainment), said that the novel’s resonance for today had struck him when he reread it a few years ago.

“What stood out to me was these two independently minded, strong women, trying to find their way in a man’s world,” Callender said, referring to Margaret and her sister Helen (Philippa Coulthard), whose actions on behalf of the young, impoverished clerk, Leonard Bast (Joseph Quinn), lead to the story’s denouement. “It seemed remarkably contemporary, and this was even before the current re-examining we are having now of the relationships between men and women.”

Lonergan was not an obvious choice to adapt the quintessentially British novel. But though he is American and has rarely worked on period dramas, the producers were intrigued by a collaboration. “He has a wit, a rhythm and an energy in his writing that I thought would bring the ideas and characters in the book to life and speak to a contemporary audience,” Callender said in an email. “Ken writes women wonderfully, and the two central characters in his adaptation of ‘Howards End’ are not Margaret and Mr. Wilcox, but Margaret and Helen.”

Even more significant, Callender added, “he is fearless and brilliant at exploring the contradictions within his characters; he allows the audience to embrace them in spite of, and more often because of, the mistakes they make.”

But Lonergan initially said no. “I was concerned about dramatizing the two main romantic relationships, since both of the girls are so intellectual in their attachment to other people,” he explained.

Eventually, after a talk with Callender, he agreed. “They were very keen, which is always flattering,” he said laconically. He added that the idea of working in another time period had appealed to his “history buff” side. (He co-wrote “Gangs of New York” and a comedy about the 14th-century papal schism, called “Medieval Play.”)

The series, broadcast late last year in Britain on BBC One, received enthusiastic reviews, with particular praise for Lonergan’s script, with its overlapping dialogue and unusually lengthy (for television) scenes. “Downton Abbey for grown-ups,” Ceri Radford wrote in The Telegraph.

Macdonald, an experienced stage and television director, said that she was slightly nervous about tackling the genre. “I think often we approach period drama in a way that is very objectified and nostalgic,” she said. “Often there isn’t a strong point of view, either in the writing or in how it’s realized; the camera or storyteller is stepping back and admiring the world — the carriages, the sets and costumes.”

Lonergan’s script, she said, “felt very interested in the people,” and impelled her to re-imagine the story. “I felt if I’m going to do this, it should come from a very 21st-century place,” she said. “Every scene, every shot must show something about the story and its themes; never just do the great big wide shot where you enjoy showing off how many horses you got!” She and the cast did, however, look at photographs, paintings and the architecture of the era in order to find the right tone. “We did a lot of work with Hettie in finding visual images of the day,” said Atwell. “Edwardian women striding through the streets of London, smoking, carrying the newspaper. It was just before the First World War, the Bloomsbury set was coming about and there was a romantic idealism about England. But we made sure that at any given moment we were stepping away from period acting.”

The series vividly recreates Edwardian London, with its scenes of postmen making the rounds, motorcars and horse-drawn carriages side by side, set against the bucolic peace and leafy lushness of Howards End, the Wilcoxes’ country home. Modernity, the show suggests, is creeping up, whether in the form of the automobile or independent women campaigning for the right to vote. (It is also suggested by the score, by the well-known contemporary composer Nico Muhly; a far cry from lush period-era soundscaping.)

“We were totally aware and thrilled that we were working on a project where the two central characters are amazing women,” Macdonald said. “And that they are so complex, so alive, not defined by a man. Even now that doesn’t happen that often.”

Atwell said that it had been a challenge to present Margaret as both an independent thinker and subject to the pressures of the era.

“She has an incredible intellect and emotional intelligence, but she is also full of contradiction and hypocrisy and mistakes, and with an extraordinary capacity for love and forgiveness,” she said. “What’s interesting is that she doesn’t make the most obvious choices, but they are in fact quite likely choices.”

One of those choices is Margaret’s decision to marry Henry Wilcox, a man quite unlike her in temperament and moral rigor. But Macfadyen’s portrayal suggests why Margaret might be drawn to him. “She has to find him attractive, sort of dishy,” Macfadyen said. “Her sister Helen is infuriated by his energy and vigor, but the Wilcoxes are nothing if not on the front foot and full of vim and zip.”

The brilliance of the book, he added, is that “it says such a lot without bashing you over the head with where your sympathies are supposed to lie.” He added. “What struck me in an age when we’re very polarized is that these characters, and their relationships to one another, make it clear things aren’t black and white. ‘Only connect,’ that phrase that everyone knows from Forster, is much grayer than we want it to be.”

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