If there were no Merchant Ivory film, Starz’s “Howards End” would be a more welcome adaptation. The four-part miniseries, an adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel about class collision and national identity in turn-of-the-century England, is impeccably cast and studiously performed. But the bones of the production, adapted by prominent playwright Kenneth Lonergan and directed by Hettie Macdonald, lacks the impeccable grace and subtlety of both the earlier adaptation and the source material. Lonergan’s screenplay is so disinterested in logistics that it just skips them; especially towards the end of the four-parter, “Howards End” lets weeks, months, or years drop between scenes without even nodding to the audience. The aim is to raise the dramatic stakes, but combined with Macdonald’s lens — which knits together the story with a pleasant, too-romantic glow — what ends up happening is a messy smoothening of an intricate story. Forster’s book — a masterpiece, albeit a flawed one — is a nuanced chronicle of enmeshment. But Starz’s “Howards End” is a syrupy effort — golden and sweet and a little gummy. This latest adaptation is an indication that without Forster’s boundless humanity in every detail, the plot points of “Howards End” crash together in something approaching melodrama.
It’s still an enjoyable journey, of course. Hayley Atwell, plays lead Margaret Schlegel, an intellectual, sensitive woman who finds herself drawn into marriage with widower Henry Wilcox (Matthew Macfayden), a successful businessman who usually misses the finer points of life in order to better focus on profit. Atwell and Macfayden are reprising the roles performed by Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins in the film, which is no easy feat, but to their credit they both find ways to make both their individual performances and their relationship dynamic appreciably different from their predecessors. The purported age difference between the two stretches credibility, but Macfayden — who is best known for playing Mr. Darcy in Joe Wright’s 2005 “Pride and Prejudice” — makes the most of silently checking a pocketwatch while smoking outdoors, and Atwell brings a self-conscious charm to Margaret’s somewhat tortured affections. Margaret’s sister, Helen (Philippa Coulthard), is a welcome talent, presenting less of the affectation that Helena Bonham-Carter brought to the role, and of the supporting cast — which includes the unlikely but successful casting of comedian Tracey Ullman as Aunt Juley — Julia Ormond is especially resplendent as the grave, distracted, intuitive Ruth Wilcox. The story unites the Schlegel sisters with both the wealthy Wilcoxes and the hapless Basts — Leonard (Joseph Quinn), a romantic clerk, and his wife Jacky (Rosalind Eleazar), a former prostitute. In an intriguing adaptive choice, Jacky, like Eleazar, is a black woman. It adds a welcome layer of commentary to the story, albeit one that is implied more than explored.
The essential problem with Starz’s “Howards End” is that it presents the story as a fable, when the appeal of the novel is how unromantic its tale is. Howards End, the estate that the story circulates around, is both a home and a piece of property, and the couples that fall in love in and around it struggle to reconcile themselves to its dual nature. But the miniseries gives the story a bit too much montage and sentiment, in a way that de-emphasizes the story’s most dramatic moments of disconnection and tragedy so as to revel in the sugary notes of the narrative. The last hour in particular is an alarmingly sloppy execution of some of the story’s most careful reveals.
“Howards End” is a story about progress, not nostalgia. But despite the considered and sumptuous locations, costuming, and period details, this is a miniseries that makes one look back to the 1992 film.