Howards End Review
Time is a funny thing. To watch the most famous film version of EM Forster’s Howards End now is to watch the 1910 novel overlaid with another layer of history. Merchant Ivory’s rendition came out in 1992 and cemented the pair’s reputation – born in 1985 with their adaptation of Forster’s A Room With a View – as the purveyor of sumptuous Edwardian goods for the contemporary masses.
To watch it now is to be almost overwhelmed by the branding. Every scene is limned in golden sunlight, every costume ripples and rustles to perfection, hair is huge, vowels are rounded and wherever you turn either Helena Bonham-Carter or Vanessa Redgrave are Bonham-Catering or Redgrave to the fullest limits of the law.
C’est magnifique – mais est it really capturing le pre-war?
Sunday night’s opening episode of the keenly awaited BBC adaptation of Howards End (four parts, broadcast the old-fashioned way, one a week) was a more sober affair. The weather was non-uniform, the wigs did not need separate billing and the clothes – while still Edwardian gorgeous – looked like they might survive more than one day’s shooting of the story of the gradual entwining of the Wilcox, Schlegel and Bast families intact.
In the first episode we have the fleeting engagement of Helen Schlegel (wonderfully played by Philippa Coulthard, whose youthful enthusiasm already contains hints of the perilous idealism to come) to a Wilcox son – which is better delineated here than in the film as an outcropping of her infatuation with the whole family – its awkward aftermath and the growing friendship between Margaret Schlegel and Mrs Wilcox. Again, this is developed at greater length than in the film, which will surely make coming events more credible, aided by the fact that the characters here are played, respectively, by Hayley Atwell and Julia Ormond, with all of those actors’ customary intelligence and commitment. Helen has her first intimation of the ultimate futility of life during Beethoven’s 5th – goblins! We’re all just goblins, tumbling around the earth! – and pulls poor Leonard Bast (played by Joseph Quinn more as a simpleton, so far, than a member of the lower middle class) into the chain of events by running off with his umbrella.
One new element that has been added is the presence of characters of colour. The doctor called to examine Mrs Wilcox is Indian. The Schlegels’ maid, Annie, is black (and evidently not fully accepted by their other servants) and Bast greets a black man, dressed as he is, in the street as a social equal.
It moves at a stately pace – possibly shading into plodding at times. A careful, almost worthy air hangs round it but this may disperse once the plot – such as it is – gets going next week.
That said, it is a timely remake. Though some of the finer points of Edwardian class distinctions and propriety may elude us at this distance, the question at the core of Forster’s work of who will inherit England, has perhaps never been as relevant since he first posed it, and the introduction of non-white characters connects it more emphatically to the present.
In the Wilcox and Schegel clans, Forster enshrined two faces of the upper class – the former pragmatic, staid, patriotic, conventional; the latter romantic, intellectual, curious, kind and slightly flighty – but united by the unthinking privilege that social status and money bring. And in Leonard Bast he displayed the lower orders; unprotected, at the mercy of forces beyond their control and just a misstep or missed pay packet away from disaster.
This new version also hints at immigration as a new source of possible inheritors of the earth. Howards End, in whatever form you read or watch it, is an examination of how the rich get the gravy and the poor get the blame. More than a century after publication, the day is not yet come when this cannot strike a chord. Time is a funny thing.
Source: The Guardian
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