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Howards End

The Merchant-Ivory film-making team got audiences hooked on stylish costume dramas way before TV's Downton Abbey juggernaut. Their productions have included adaptations of E.M. Forster's novels — the lesser known Maurice, as well as A Room With a View and Howards End . The latter two were major hits. All are still available for streamig at Amazon Prime and as very affordable DVD's. And yet for Matthew Lopez, an up and coming yougg playwright, it served as the inspiration for The Inheritance, an epic two-part drama about gay history. Fortunately it opened on Broadway before the pandemic ended the theater season ( our review). On a less upbeat note, its unlikely to survive the extended shutdown, so it will be a long time, before audiences anywhere will have a chance to see it.

But Lopez wasn't the only storyteller to once again find Howards End worth a new look. Kenneth Lonergan adapted the novel to be presented as a four-part series on PBS. In his case, it was a departure from the original stage and screen scripts set in modern times on which his reputation has been built. What's more, his adaptation would have to compete against the Oscar winning and still available Merchant-Ivory version.

The good news is that viewers starved for solid dramas but unable to leave home can see for themselves if Lonergan and the director and actors succeed in ma this Howards End both freshly relevant and ideally suited to this multi-episode format , in this case, 4 episodes.

Before I go any further a note for readers unfamiliar with Forster's novel or the previous movie adaptation — no, I didn't forget an apostrophe for that last title. It wasn't named for a character named Howard but for a country mansion owned by a self-made tycoon taking advantage of the opportunities of England's shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy. By interconnecting three very different families but having all faced with the challenges of the still young century, Forster managed to create an entertaining experience as well as a thoughtful morality tale . The moral queston posed was whether those who could now afford the life style of the nobility should just enjoy the spoils of their entrepreneurship — or if they have a moral obligation to use their wealth to broaden the well being of their fellow citizens.

That's why, It doesn't take much of a stretch to see modern counterparts in the novel's characters and the citizens in our own land of opportunity. Henry Wilcox, the rich industrialist and owner of the titular mansion would today be part of the 1% . The idealistic Margaret Schlegel and her sister Helen would today be in the forefront of issues like Medicare for all and the #MeToo movement. Leonard Bast, a struggling striver unable to fit into the changing world, represents all the people who fell between the cracks in Forster's Edwardian new socioeconomical world, as well as our own new reality in which factory and office jobs and retail sales were undermined or replaced by new methods of production and distribution.

Granted, many contemporary writers and directors would have opted to modernize any new version of Forster's novel, perhaps, like Matthew Lopez, use it as an inspirational jump start for his own script. But I'm happy to report that Mr. Lonergsn quite brilliantly managed to stick with a traditional approach to adaptation — not tinkering with the source work's time frame and the author's own words — yet subtly intensified certain elements. With Howards End that meant making the viewer more aware of the social themes that were on the page but not made quite so much of in the Merchant-Ivory film.

Longergan's script puts the kebash on the idea that this is an unnecessary adaptation coming off as unnecessary. It's being a must-see is abetted by the way director Hettie Macdonald has shepherded the interconnected stories of the Wilcoxes, the less wealthy but very much part of the establishment Schlegels, and the impoverished Leonard Bast and his wife into a binge-worthy viewing experience. Her design team has vividly detailed the look and feel of the Edwardian era even as the plot evokes the parallels between that long ago world and the present .

As for the cast memorable as the high profile leads of the original film were ( Anthony Hopkin, Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter), the actors now portraying the Wilcoxes, Schlegels and Basts have put their own stamp on these characters. Hailey Atwell does full justice to the central character, the 28-year-old Margaret Schlegel who was still a girl when she becsme mother and father to her sister Helen (hilippa Coulthard) and brother Tibby (Alex Lawther ) . Atwell's Margaret is an independent, intelligent and yet vulnerable woman viewers can easily identify with. Like many a 21st century woman Margaret must deal with the practical problems that even those benefiting from the economy's energetic growth spawned by those taking advantage of industry based new opportunities. For the Schlegels that means they will have to find a new home because the cost of leasing their London house has exceeded their means. Margaret's being caught between two worlds is most tellingly illustrated by her relationship with Henry Wilcox to whom she is attracted despite their very different personalities and his being head of the West Africsn Rubber Company that continues the British Empire's system of exploitation.

The fact thst Mathew MacFayden's Henry Wilcox is much younger than Anthony Hopkins was puts more zip into their relationship and better supports her open-mindedness which has her admit as much to her disapproving sister ("I don't intend to correct him, or to reform him. Only connect"). Yet, it's Helen's disapproval and what happens to her that eventually turns this into a triangle and Lonergan's script puts a new emphasis on which two of the three are the leads (yes, it's the women!).

The casting of Tracey Ulllman as the Schlegels' Aunt Juley adds an extra bit of pizazz to the enjoyment of the series. And while the novel made no mention about Leonard Bast's wife Jackie's being black, there were lots of people of color in Forster's London so having black actresses playing the Schlegels' maid and Leonard Bast's wife Jackie is a realistic and valid bow to diversity.

For me, Howards End was the latest in the many Kenneth Longergan plays and movies. And while it's likely to be a long time before I can see one of his plays either on or off Broadway, the abundance of archival riches at the various streaming services enabled me to revisit his best movies, Manchester by the Sea (it's included as part of Amszon Prime subscriptions). Lucas Hedges who had a break out role in that movie was equally outstanding in the Broadway revival of Lonergan's Waverly Gallery that I was still able to s ee and review. (My Manchester by the Sea review. . . my Waverly Gallery review

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Howards End by E. M. Forster Adapted by Kenneth Lonergan
Directed by Hattie MacDonald,
Cast: Haley At well as Margaret Schlegel; Matthew MacFadyen as Henry Wilcox; Tracey Ullman as Aunt Juley Mund; Julie Ormond as Ruth Wilcox; Philippa Coulthard as Helen Schlegel; Joseph Quinn as Leonard Bast; Rosalind Eleazar as Jacky; Alex Lawther as Tibby
4 episodes

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