In Howards Ends‘ tale of small dramas intensely felt, a stolen umbrella leads to financial ruin; aggrieved characters exclaim things like “What an unsatisfactory postcard!”; and families whose social philosophies couldn’t be further apart are drawn, inextricably, together.
After meeting during a holiday abroad, independent, socially progressive sisters Helen and Meg Schlegel (Philippa Coulthard and Hayley Atwell) cross paths with the well-to-do Wilcox clan when the family relocates to London. Ruth (Julia Ormond), the formidable matriarch of the Wilcox family, feels a surprising kinship with the intellectual Meg, and Ruth’s dying wish sets off an unexpected series of events that upset the natural social order for these turn-of-the-century London residents, especially the unfortunate Leonard Bast (Joseph Quinn), a working-class clerk whom the Schlegel sisters try to befriend.
This brisk, faithful adaptation of E.M. Forster’s classic (scripted by Oscar nominee Kenneth Lonergan) is anchored by Atwell’s lived-in performance. Trussed up in flowing Edwardian-era skirts and wide-brimmed hats, Atwell is fluid and natural as Meg, a woman whose keen sense of humanity and curiosity about her fellow man sometimes lead her into trouble. Spreading the story over four hours also allows Lonergan and company time to luxuriate in some of the novel’s secondary characters, most notably the Schlegel sisters’ peevish and persnickety brother, Tibby (played to droll perfection by The End of the F***ing World’s Alex Lawther), and Aunt Juley (Tracey Ullman, her signature quirk held firmly in check).
Though Howards End (premiering April 8 at 8 p.m. on Starz) doesn’t have the ardor of the network’s Outlander, fans of that time-traveling romance may still find themselves swooning at the gracefully restrained emotion between Meg and stuffy Mr. Wilcox (Matthew Macfadyen). Indeed, “Mr. Wilcox, you quite take my breath away” may be the most passionate line uttered over the course of the entire series, but it still feels like a sweet arrow through the heart. Grade: B+