Howards End premieres April 8th on Starz.
By Ariba Bhuvad
Based on E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel of the same name comes Starz/BBC One production, Howards End by Manchester By The Sea writer Kenneth Lonergan. The four-episode mini-series tells the story of three families that find their lives intertwined under the most unusual of circumstances–the Schlegels, the Wilcoxes, and the Basts. The story is set in early 20th century London when the Golden Age was in full swing and the women’s suffrage movement is on the rise. At the epicenter of the story is Margaret Schlegel, played by the fantastic and amazing Hayley Atwell. She possesses a certain bohemian, strong-willed manner about her, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind very bluntly. She is a strong voice of reason alongside her sister, Helen, played by Philippa Coulthard, who matches her in wits, intelligence, and the desire to find purpose in their lives. However, the two differ in how they view love which becomes a point of friction and separation during the course of the four episodes.
I am a huge period drama buff and fell in love with the story almost immediately because Howards End dares to tell a story the other period dramas don’t. While other shows in the same genre present women in roles that are dumbed down or helpless, Howards End dares to be different. Much of the story lies in the Schlegels’ courageous and brave mentality because they refuse to be pushed down by the early 20th century societal guidelines for women. This becomes an interesting point as their lives intersect with the Wilcoxes and the Basts. While on holiday, the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes become acquaintances and there is a fleeting romance between Helen and the youngest Wilcox son, Paul (Jonah Hauer-King) during Helen’s visit to the Wilcox home, Howards End. This sets off a series of events that the viewer doesn’t anticipate coming (unless, of course of you’ve seen the critically acclaimed 1992 movie based on the novel or read the novel itself). Heartbroken and flustered, Helen heads back to London and moves on with her life. Along the way, the Wilcoxes move to London and in an interesting turn of events, become the Schlegels’ neighbors. An unlikely friendship between Margaret and Mrs. Wilcox (Julia Ormond) forms and lasts until Mrs. Wilcox’s death. In her “will”, she bequeaths Margaret the Wilcox home of Howards End. But her family chooses to hide this from the Schlegels.
From someone who hasn’t read the novel or seen the 1992 movie, I was so encapsulated by where the narrative was taking us. I had absolutely no idea the journey we would take in just a mere four episodes and how the lives of three families could change so drastically. Over time, Margaret and Mr. Wilcox (Matthew Macfadyen) form a bond and go on to get married, yes, married. Although she is transparent and upfront about how she chooses to live life, he harbors a great many secrets, including an affair he had many years ago. This is an interesting relationship to see Margaret get into because Henry carries the typical sexist attitude of that time while she chooses to resist that mentality. This is what makes Howards End so enticing to watch because it places Edwardian female characters in situations we haven’t really seen before. There is a unique balance here of managing expectations of that time and living life on a level of equality and Howards End brings gender and class issues to the front and center of the story line here.
Now, I mentioned there were three families involved in the story, the last one being the Basts. The Schlegel sisters along with their aunt Juley (Tracey Ullman) and corky, hypochondriac brother Tibby (Alex Lawther) come across Leonard Bast (Joseph Quinn). Leonard is from the lower-middle class and finds himself struggling at life’s every turn, alongside his wife Jacky (Rosalind Eleazar). When Helen accidentally takes his umbrella home after a concert, it begins a journey between the three families that leads to the epic series finale. The Schlegels become quite invested in Leonard’s life and well-being and give him aid and friendship. Quinn’s portrayal of this conflicted character is executed perfectly because he’s the odd man out in the story, and doesn’t fit in with the lavish lifestyle of the Schlegels and Wilcoxes. As time passes, Helen begins to connect with Leonard on a deeper level, so much so that she ends up pregnant with his baby. And remember the affair Mr. Wilcox had many years ago? Well, plot twist it was with Leonard’s wife. And just like that their lives come together in the most complicated and unexpected of ways which all comes to a head in Howards End.
After Helen learns she is pregnant, she chooses to disappear and disconnect from her family out of shame. They manage to trick her into going to Howard’s End under the surmise of picking up some of her old belongings. It is here where Margaret learns her sister is pregnant, and it is also here that poor Leonard meets his demise–courtesy of Charles Wilcox (Joe Bannister). Leonard finds himself at Howards End to try and find Helen and in doing so has to face Charles’ wrath for what “he has done to her.” One thing leads to another and Leonard gets crushed beneath a bookcase. There is an interesting dynamic here that points out the contradiction women face, and something I was very appreciative of being highlighted in the story. When Margaret wants to help Helen, Mr. Wilcox refuses to allow them to stay in Howards End because he looks down on Helen, but Margaret doesn’t hesitate to point out the hypocrisy of him doing the same thing as a male during his affair. It is such a beautifully scripted scene that really steals the series in a manner of minutes. And after such a crazy life of unexpected moments, we see a time jump where the Schlegel sisters are living in Howards End with Mr. Wilcox and Helen’s child. And as Mr. Wilcox is finalizing his will, he decides to leave Howards End with Margaret (who we know was meant to have it from the get-go). But the series doesn’t just end there, Margaret finally learns that Mrs. Wilcox intended her to have it all those years ago. Crazy, right?
From the music, to the costumes, to the characters, to the intricate plots, to the beautiful scenery and production–everything felt near-perfect in this upcoming Starz series. I have to say that I am biased towards period dramas but this one surpassed my expectations because it was so brave and daring. I loved the references to the societal/gender expectations of the time and how they intertwined it into the story but took a different approach and didn’t shove it in our faces. It was always in the background as a strong voice looming over the four episodes. Atwell’s acting went above and beyond anything I’ve seen her do before, and come on, she played Agent Carter. She was so poise and calm and collect but still possessed a fierceness inside of her. I just honestly couldn’t get enough. Bravo Howards End for giving us a story to be proud of and fall in love with because it chose to do one thing–it dared to be different.
I give Howards End an A-.