In 1992, famed filmmakers James Ivory (a 2018 Oscar winner for Call Me by Your Name) and Ismail Merchant and their trusted screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala debuted a lush film adaptation of the E.M. Forster masterpiece Howards End. Beautifully rendered and perfectly cast — Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter and Vanessa Redgrave starred — the tale of economic class, family bonds and social conventions in turn-of-the-century England became an instant classic, earning Oscars for Thompson and Jhabvala.
Twenty-five years later, the BBC revisited the epic as a four-part miniseries, which makes its American debut this month on Starz.
The first TV adaptation from Kenneth Lonergan, Oscar-winning screenwriter for Manchester by the Sea, this gracefully expanded, gorgeously shot Howards End stars Hayley Atwell (Agent Carter) and Philippa Coulthard (The Catch) as privileged sisters Margaret and Helen Schlegel, whose intellectual lifestyles and class-spanning social circles expose them to a less gilded world. Ripper Street’s Matthew Macfadyen steps into Hopkins’ role, playing new-money landowner Henry Wilcox, who woos Margaret after the death of his wife Ruth (Julia Ormond) — a Schlegel pal who, unbeknownst to Margaret, bequeaths her Ruth’s cherished family home.
“The great thing about a book like Howards End or any great art is that the resonance and the reverberations change according to the context and the time in which you see it or read it,” says executive producer Colin Callender (Wolf Hall, The White Queen). “In this instance, what became very clear was that there was an extraordinary story of these two women trying to find their way in a man’s world, and it felt that that story was as pertinent and as immediate and as relevant today as ever.”
Lonergan’s adaptation refreshes but honors the original work, and Atwell says the sisters’ deepened bond presents timeless lessons for modern women — and modern scriptwriters.
“Margaret’s learning, through her relationship with [Henry] Wilcox, that life is not black and white, and there is a cost to being awake and conscious of the fact that the world isn’t as easy to change as we thought it would be,” Atwell explains of the clear-eyed Margaret’s relationship with the idealistic Helen.
“It’s really lovely to see two women onscreen who are not pitted against each other, that there’s a genuine affection for each other. There’s a level of intimacy between them which I find so moving and I’d love to see more of, because that’s my actual experience with the women in my life. We’re not out to compete with each other. There’s plenty of room for all of us to have our sense of place and identity. And you see that so strongly with these two girls, who absolutely adore each other.”
Howards End > Starz > Sundays beginning April 8