‘Howard’s End’ Updates a Classic Story With a Lush Adaptation

In the world of “Howards End” where you are born and what your family name is could mean the difference between success and poverty. Starz’s new limited series is the latest adaptation of this classic story, giving it the proper space of television. Lavishly staged and acted, the world of early 20th century England comes to life with a special vividness in the series premiere. The timing is just right for a revival of E.M. Forster’s novel and its characters, because in many ways their world resonates quite a lot with our own.

It is England at the turn of the century and two elite families cross paths. The Schlegels, led by the happily unmarried Margaret (Hayley Atwell), find themselves in an odd situation with the Wilcoxes. During a trip to Germany, Margaret’s younger sister, the vivacious Helen (Philippa Coulthard) locks eyes with Paul Wilcox (Jonah Hauer-King) and after visiting the Wilcox estate, Howards End, an engagement is announced. Just as Margaret and Aunt Juley (Tracey Ullman) rush to make sense of what is happening, the engagement is called off. Paul is leaving for Africa and Helen now believes it was all a blunder made in the heat of passion. But soon the Wilcoxes move in to a flat just down the street from the Schlegels. At first the proximity is a bit uncomfortable, especially since the Schlegels pride themselves in being progressive-minded, whereas the Wilcox patriarch Henry (Matthew Macfadyen) holds to staunch conservative views concerning women. But Margaret soon becomes friends with the Wilcox matriarch, Ruth (Julia Ormond). Helen meanwhile makes an acquaintance through folly with Leonard Bast (Joseph Quinn), a working class chap who will be pulled into the world of the Schlegels as romances and intrigue consume them all.

E.M. Forster’s novel remains one of the great fictional imaginings of the leftovers of Victorian society. It was published in 1910, four years before World War I would sweep away that entire society. Before this TV adaptation the most famous filmed version was the 1992 movie directed by James Ivory and starring Anthony Hopkins. This new adaptation is a worthy successor, written and directed with a lush sense of the time period. The attention to detail is wonderfully meticulous. Mornings are shared with delectable breakfasts and rooms are furnished with objects meant to convey status. Someone is called to answer the door, and we see on the dining room table an egg on its stand, cracked open for eating. Never once does the environment feel artificial.

But what makes this “Howards End” engaging is how fascinating it is to travel through the world of the old aristocracy. In the opening scenes Helen wakes up to find the Wilcox men practicing croquet while the women do exercises on funny contraptions. The Schlegels attend an orchestra concert out of both interest and to maintain a cultured appearance. Some of the best scenes in the premiere episode belong to Henry Wilcox as he rails against women’s rights and social equality, using pristine capitalist logic (“one good businessman can do more for the world than all your suffragettes”). Good manners are almost a form of dueling in this world. Even if you don’t like a certain person, you must maintain etiquette or risk a bad reputation. Today the social classes might have different mannerisms, but the obsession with appearance and perception remain the same. Romance itself becomes a social game. Margaret is a rebel simply for growing into full adulthood without finding a husband. When her and Helen invite Leonard Bast into their home for tea he scuttles away when he realizes he is out of his natural habitat. “Howards End” has always endured as a great story because it brilliantly captures a society’s class divisions and the anxieties about how we are perceived.

The cast is fantastic, especially because they seem to relish playing these roles that come with such strong dialogue and sense of character. Hayley Atwell’s Margaret is mature but hiding her own passions, while Philippa Coulthard’s Helen is full of youthful exuberance. Matthew Macfadyen’s Henry Wilcox has the air of the self-assured man of status, boastful and arrogant, but inviting. His role has some particularly hard shoes to fill considering Anthony Hopkins has been the defining image of Henry Wilcox for over 20 years. But Macfadyen is a worthy heir.

A great period piece pulls you in by evoking a world and its people fully. This new “Howards End” introduces itself as a great hour of television where we dine with the British upper classes in an era long gone, but with a few flourishes relatable to us. Like flies on the wall or mice in the kitchen, we bask in being outsiders watching these people live, feel, ponder and chart their lives, only to see if their plans can survive the hand of fate.

Howards End” premieres on April 8 with new episodes airing Sundays at 5 p.m. ET on Starz.