Only Connect?

November 23, 2017 § Leave a comment

Howard's End 2018
Its liveliness and acuity make the script of Howards End the best thing about it. Straining to read the rather fuzzy opening credits, I was delighted to see it’s the work of Kenneth Lonergan, the writer and director of Manchester by the Sea and Margaret, films that explore the difficulties of relationships in relation to the private and the social. An apt choice for adapting this particular novel by E M Forster.
The 1992 Merchant Ivory film was re-released last year. I think it escaped me, but I wouldn’t have been drawn to see it again. I can’t help but make comparisons between it and the new BBC drama series. Where the film was showy, in typically lavish Merchant Ivory fashion, all lacy Edwardian frocks and fancy hats, tea tables groaning with cake – and committing similar excesses in acting style – this four-parter exerts its strengths quietly, at least at first (two episodes in), noting finer class distinctions and changing mores in the London of the years before World War I.
There are three families at the heart of Howards End, but two of them matter more than the third. These are the Wilcoxes, their uppercrust wealth deriving from business interests that reach across the Empire, their leisure pursuits sporty and not of the mind, and the affectionate Schlegel siblings, two sisters in their 20s and a younger brother, orphans freed from parental limits and with inherited private incomes that enable them to pursue a comfortable existence as intellectuals on the fringes of liberal bohemia. Their name gives them a high-cultural resonance with the Schlegel brothers and the German Romantic Movement a century earlier: one likely to have been more familiar in Forster’s day than now.
Lonergan’s script observes the Schlegel sisters in the mould of the New Woman, interested in and pithily commenting on other things new around them: ideas about diet as well as music, literature, the suffrage movement. They are open-minded and generous spirits, which explains why their German holiday encounter with the Wilcoxes led to friendship rather than the friction their divergent outlooks would only later engender. All the same, Margaret Schlegel’s growing attachment to Henry Wilcox is made rather implausible with Matthew Macfadyen in the role, an actor who has always struck me as impeccably dull. At least Anthony Hopkins brought charm and alertness to the unpalatably capitalistic paterfamilias in the 1992 film.
But the sisters’ casting certainly has the edge in this new version. Instead of Margaret Schlegel cast as Emma Thompson, Helen as Helena Bonham Carter, rather than the other way round, we see Hayley Atwell and Philippa Coulthard respectively achieve a more interior sense of character. Atwell in particular impresses as a woman who, devoid of Thompson’s archness, listens and thinks, responding with what Forster calls her ‘potent vitality’. Neither is showy but both are vivid, and this vividness is heightened through their clothes, their elegantly painted rooms, and the inspired use of colour in the setting of wider scenes – like the one where, seen from above, Helen’s scarlet beret becomes a flame travelling across the busy greyness of a London square.
The script is alive to the structures of class and gender behind the appearances of the Edwardian city, and the presence of a black maid in the Schlegel household adds nuance to the perspective on its liberalism. Another black actor, Rosalind Eleazor, plays the part of Jacky, the common-law wife of the clerk Leonard Bast, in whom Helen takes a well-meaning interest. Jacky and Leonard form the story’s third, and lower-middle-class, family, which is incidental to the central drama while being instrumental in its resolution.
I’m curious to see how Lonergan’s script deals with this problematic resolution, which can so easily be read as a reconciliation of the bourgeoisie in comfortable compromise through the sacrifice of lesser lives.
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