This is my review of Howards End – TV Mini Series [DVD] .
In what was to prove the end of an idyllic period for the leisured English middle classes just before the outbreak of World War One, E M Forster captures the tensions and lack of “meeting of minds” between the intellectual Schlegels, idealistic within their cocoon of unconscious privilege, who live comfortably on inherited money, and the much wealthier, pragmatic, materialistic Wilcoxes who have built a fortune “in trade” and have no compunction about “keeping the workers in their place”. Through a chance meeting of the Schlegel siblings with the bookish, music-loving clerk Leonard Bast, Forster explores the class divide of the early 1900s. Apart from his prickly dignity and the sense of obligation to the lover who is holding him back, we are never shown exactly what is going on in Leonard’s mind, although perhaps it is more effective for us only to see him from the viewpoint of the Schlegel sisters, keen to help him but not knowing how.
Some reviewers have dismissed this serialisation as a picture post card/chocolate box dumbing down primarily intended as a BBC export which will also boost the tourist trade. I admit that the sunlit green English countryside, vistas of grassy expanses above white Dorset cliffs against a backdrop of cloudless blue skies and calm blue seas are at times almost implausibly idyllic, together with an improbably clean white-stuccoed London, for the wealthy at least. Likewise, the exquisite attention to Edwardian detail is fascinating, although the clothes are in general too evidently well-fitting and brand new to be quite convincing. I also found unnecessary and slightly irritating the “political correctness” of a multi-racial cast which does not reflect accurately either Forster’s book or the reality of the society he was portraying.
None of this bothers me unduly, since the production seems true to the spirit of the novel, retaining the original dialogue, so that it sometimes seems stilted but is often sharp and expressive. Howard’s End itself appearing in the form of a rambling, characterful red brick dwelling surrounded by greenery and approached by a lane with magnificent overarching trees. The acting is excellent, although Michael Macfadyen seems too young a forty-something in the role of the patriarch Mr. Wilcox who falls for Margaret Schlegel, the serious-minded elder sister who has devoted herself to her orphaned siblings to the point of risking becoming an old maid. Not surprising then that she seeks “a real man” in the form of Mr Wilcox, even though the two are clearly fundamentally different in their attitude to life. The main characters, at least on the “middle class” side, are well developed. Margaret’s younger sister Helen, impetuous with a hint of instability, plays the role of the character prepared to challenge the system, but unequipped to cope unaided when “it comes to the crunch”.. Brother Tibby provides a further contrast as the hypochondriac, wimpish bookworm cosseted by his sisters, who do not seem to resent the fact that, being the male child, he is the one to go Oxford.
The story proceeds at a slow, almost dreamlike pace, but with moments of humour and a sense of real connection between the characters. The dramatic build up in the final episode seems too rapid, and somewhat disjointed, although this may reflect the structure of the original novel. It seems to me that the story is an intriguing family drama, without providing much profound insight, but I would need to reread the novel to decide whether the short-coming lies with Forster of the film-makers.
Although everyone may be a little wiser at the end, the wry truth remains that in any crisis the poor and the underdogs will tend to be the ones who lose out, but hints of the approaching war suggest that the idyll of Howard’s End may not last.