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‘Howards End’ review: Beautiful, but bloodless

Hayley Atwell stars as Margaret Schlegel in Starz's

Hayley Atwell stars as Margaret Schlegel in Starz's "Howards End." Credit: Starz / Laurie Sparham

THE MINISERIES “Howards End”

WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Sunday on Starz

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Margaret Schlegel (Hayley Atwell) and her sister, Helen (Philippa Coulthard), first meet the Wilcoxes, who were on a tour of Germany, and then Helen meets up with them at the Wilcoxes’ country cottage, Howards End (filmed at Vann House, Hambledon, Surrey). After the death of Mrs. Wilcox (Julia Ormond), Margaret marries the widowed Henry Wilcox (Matthew Macfadyen) and complications ensue. This four-hour film of E.M. Forster’s 1910 classic is based on a teleplay by Oscar winner Kenneth Lonergan (“Manchester by the Sea”).

MY SAY When Forster wrote “Howards End,” he keenly felt the impending clash of armies in the night. He also keenly felt how hard it was to find an affordable apartment in London. Change was everywhere, dislocation too. London was booming, with the rich getting richer, the poor poorer. Queen Victoria had died eight years earlier, while her ailing successor, Edward VII, would soon be on his deathbed, too. It was an exhilarating, wild, scary moment. The world — which is to say his England — was seeking a way forward.

Forster appears to have concluded — accurately, as it turns out — that men were not up to the task. The reins of history should be handed over to women, for only they had the tools necessary — compassion, empathy, a multifaceted intelligence and above all, a moral beauty. He was an “I’m With Her” kind of guy long before “I’m With Her” was a thing.

His Margaret Schlegel was the idealization, or a wistful reflection of, Victoria herself: half German, half English, also kind, wise, decent, practical, imaginative and, above all, ethical. Henry Wilcox symbolized the bumptious imperial John Bull, while Helen was his “Teutonic” opposite. If England and Germany were to resolve their differences, or “only connect,” as Forster so famously pleaded, they needed to be like Margaret.

And yes, this is a long windup to explain why both the 1992 Merchant-Ivory film and this miniseries are badly dated period pieces, which sounds like an oxymoron but there you have it. How to negate the “dated”? Make Margaret as complex and real as possible, and get her down off that pedestal. Emma Thompson only half-accomplished the job and still won an Oscar in the effort. But Lonergan has written such a faithful, occasionally slavish adaptation that there’s little room left for Atwell to maneuver. She remains a tower of probity, while Macfadyen’s blustery and pathetic Henry is a flattened ruin by comparison. There’s also an innate chilliness to them, both a little more “symbol” than human.

The other trick is to reflect Forster’s sumptuous, gorgeous prose. “Howards End” does make some headway there. Hettie Macdonald’s intelligent, sensible direction works overtime to visually adapt Forster’s intentions. The early hours, for example, are essentially color-coded to mirror the duality of the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels, and lots of other dualities, too, including country (greens) and city (reds), art and commerce, idealism and capitalism, and — what else? — good and evil. The namesake and house itself, Howards End, is all red brick enveloped in summer greens. It symbolizes unity, as well as stability, rootedness and the innate, if elusive, goodness of the English soul. We first see an ethereal Mrs. Wilcox drift onto the screen, draped in white and umbers, as if a cloud at sunset. She symbolizes purity, and salvation. As resident earth mother, she also gets the best line: “If we could bring the mothers of the various nations together, then there would be no more war.”

Anyway, you get the idea. At least “Howards End” is a visual feast. Just don’t be too surprised, or disappointed, if you’re not quite sated by the end.

BOTTOM LINE A beauty to behold but an ice cube to hold, this “Howards End” never quite thaws.

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