Lost In Drama has returned from hiatus! Did I miss much? Just kidding, I really pick my moments because it’s only been a couple weeks and all this came out – Howards End, Peaky Blinders, Mudbound, Alias Grace and 1922. I would cry ‘help!’ but I’ll just get started on the one I was most looking forward to. I’ll be releasing the first three Howard’s End episode reviews over the next few days as I get caught up.
The BBC’s new adaptation of Howards End has been eagerly anticipated by period drama fans, arriving 25 years after the 1992 film that netted Emma Thompson an Academy Award for Best Actress. This time around, there’s two more hours to work with, hopefully offering new nuances to E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel.
Hayley Atwell takes the lead role of Margaret Schlegel – a passionate, intelligent woman with ideas ahead of her Edwardian society, she lives quietly in London with her two younger siblings, Helen (Philippa Coulthard) and Tibby (Alex Lawther). The first ten minutes rapidly run us through a number of significant events, as Helen spends time in the country with the Wilcox family, acquaintances made whilst travelling. However, she leaves in some mild disgrace after a failed engagement with the youngest son. Soon enough, the two families’ paths cross again back in London, bringing some unexpected friendships.
The BBC continue to prove their mastery of the period drama with the level of rich detail and carefully crafted screenplay. Howards End feels fresh, and importantly, producers have clearly taken on board the criticism as to diversity in the genre – or lack thereof. However, despite some nontraditional casting across the drama, non-white actors still don’t get any leading roles here. The closest is Jacky, the fallen woman living with the young Leonard Bast. It’s a start, but only that.
Despite this, there are some standout stars among the cast. The casting of Tracey Ullman as meddling Aunt Julie is inspired, her well-proven expressiveness finding a perfect home in the role. My favourite young actor of the moment Alex Lawther, last seen in Goodbye Christopher Robin last month, continues to impress as Tibby, using his refined skill in portraying anxious, yet passionate characters.
Central to this first episode however, is the complex figure of Ruth Wilcox. Named early by Helen as the driving force behind the family, she’s far more complex than that. A Victorian woman in the years of suffragette hunger strikes, she’s spent her life living in a traditionally unequal marriage. She may have the final decision on table discussion topics, but they’re made only to preserve the society status quo.
Margaret and Ruth strike up an unexpected friendship, where both seem to see the other as an opportunity to find learn something new, and to teach the other. Julia Ormond is particularly fantastic as Ruth, lending her a quiet uncertainty as she faces London without her family for a brief time. She’s spent her whole life building and looking after her family – without them, she has to figure out where her own interests and skills lie. Enter the self-possessed, Margaret, who is her polar opposite in that respect and completely without airs. When Ruth is swept back into her family circle, there’s a certain sadness in both women that the opportunities that must now be shut away.
Episode one of Howards End flies past with ease, and there’s still lots to come. It’s an interesting book to adapt – in a statement in Chapter 6 of the novel, Forster states quite decisively that ‘We are not concerned with the very poor’, and that may be to its fault. It spans three family units across the classes but always keeps those in the toughest circumstances at arm’s length. Whether the BBC chooses to follow the author’s line or expand on those deliberately neglected sections will be an interesting decision to watch out for.