The 2017 adaptation of E. M. Forster’s “Howards End”—directed by Hettie Macdonald from a screenplay by Kenneth Lonergan (“Manchester by the Sea”) is beautifully true to the book and the times in which it is set. Lonergan stated in interviews that he had no interest in updating the novel to fit modern sensibilities. Instead, he subtly underlines scenes from the book in which less privileged members of society run into and quietly chafe at the restrictions laid on them—for instance, all the times that Margaret Schlegel (Hayley Atwell), the heroine of the piece, starts to say “oh, no, I can . . .” whenever some man attempts to “help” her when she needs no help, then subsides and says “thank you” in a resigned but pleasant tone. The audience is allowed to call on their own understanding, and the message is delivered in a more effective way than it would have been had Lonergan made Margaret as assertive as a woman today would be. (Or, God forbid, a “younger, edgier” version of herself .)
The result is a compelling but never preachy treatise—using houses as a metaphor—on how two people learn to enter into a partnership of equals, accompanied by ruminations on our social duty to the less fortunate.
Henry Wilcox (Matthew Macfadyen), owner of the titular house, successful businessman, husband, and father, is the archetypal Father. His word is law in his family and at his firm; he strides through situations taking charge and making things happen. He is unable to express his feelings. Although he has intuition, he thinks in terms of business, so is frequently surprised by events—which he then tries to control through reason and making a clear plan.
A self-made man, he argues cogently and logically against what he considers misguided sympathy for the less fortunate, which he sees as both a waste of time and condescending. “This young bounder has a life of his own,” he challenges Margaret when she attempts to help the lower-class Leonard Bast (Joseph Quinn). “What right have you to conclude it is an unsuccessful life?” But Margaret can’t shake her belief that the fortunate have a duty to help the less fortunate, nor her feeling that Leonard is in trouble.
Henry is in trouble of a different kind. He unconsciously longs for connection with others, particularly with the feminine. When his wife Ruth (Julia Ormond) dies, he is devastated by two things: his loneliness without her, and his guilt over the memory of how he once betrayed her while apart from her on a long business trip. He can’t settle at Howards End or anywhere else. He moves the family to London to a rented flat, then buys a house nearby, then buys a house in “the wrong part of Shropshire, as it turns out,” which he quickly moves out of again.
Ruth balanced him by expressing Mother energy in its purest form. She was all intuition and feeling; she acted on instinct and often said exactly the right thing to defuse a situation. But when asked for her opinion, she could not answer. She ruled her family nonetheless, and others as well. In every encounter with her, the strong-minded Margaret ended up doing exactly what Ruth wanted—and adored her for it, saying “There was something great about her.” Ruth extended her motherliness to Margaret, who lost her own mother at the age of 13. When Ruth dies Margaret is among the mourners.
It was Ruth who brought Howards End into the Wilcox family. When she realizes that the Schlegels were soon to lose their lease on the house they’d lived in all their lives, she is far more upset than Margaret. “Seeking a spiritual heir” to the home she loved so much, she leaves a penciled note found after her death instructing her husband to give Howards End to Margaret—an instruction he ignores. He and the rest of the Wilcoxes do not want Howards End, but they are not about to give it to a stranger. And perhaps Henry cannot part with this reminder of Ruth.
The oldest Wilcox son, Charles (Joe Bannister), has adopted all that is rigid about his father’s attitudes, but lacks Henry’s insight into situations, making him a poor businessman and even worse at dealing with other people. He marries a silly woman, Dolly (Yolanda Kettle), who is emotional but lacks intuition. Evie (Bessie Carter) , the Wilcox daughter, is a Father’s Daughter type; she has modeled herself on her father instead of her mother and is abrasive and judgmental of others, even her fiancé whom she sneers at for being ineffectual. Paul (Jonah Hauer-King), the younger son, is driven by impulse—he kisses Helen because he senses “this girl will let you,” then regrets it. We see little of Paul, but from what we do see, he is a blend of Henry and Charles; he has initiative and drive like his father, but is rigid in his attitudes, like Charles.
Leonard Bast is Charles’s double in many ways, a kind of mirror. Leonard also lacks initiative and holds rigid attitudes that make him mistake what others are trying to say. He is a passive man who readily gives in to his desires. While he was still very young he was entrapped by Jacky (Rosalind Eleazar), a “fallen woman” in her 30s who was desperate to find someone to marry her and regain respectability. Leonard, having been manipulated into giving his word to marry her, sticks to this obligation even though he is desperately unhappy.
Now that sex is always available to him, his lust is all for “culture,” and he envies the intellectual class represented by the Schlegels. For him, life happens outside of a house, not in it; he despises his ugly, stuffy rented flat and lives most fully in concert halls and libraries. Leonard is essentially homeless. In the one meaningful act of his life, he rebels by walking out of London, finding himself at dawn out in the country where he at last can breathe. . His connection to life is tenuous. Margaret senses this about him. But she thinks the answer is to “improve” his understanding of culture, which, as Henry argues, will in fact only make him more unhappy with his situation in life. Neither of them have heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but pragmatic Henry has a better grasp of reality. What Leonard really needs is a better-paying job.
Helen (Phillipa Coulthard), the younger Schlegel sister, provides the story with the necessary dose of Trickster energy. She is the catalyst for most of the action, sometimes inadvertently (as when she takes Leonard’s umbrella by mistake at a concert, thus bringing him into the Schlegel’s orbit), but more often because she can’t leave the status quo alone. She questions everything, blurts out opinions and reactions without thinking, and leaves chaos in her wake. The story opens with her upsetting everyone in the Schlegel and Wilcox households by acting on an impulse that she later regrets, a pattern she repeats again and again despite escalating consequences. Her usual reaction is to run away; she leaves England every time she makes a mess.
Margaret, the protagonist of the story, wants to find a middle path. Where Helen questions the outer world, Margaret questions the inner, particularly her own thoughts and attitudes. When Henry challenges her assumptions, she takes what he says and considers it carefully, even with gratitude. Her ability to see herself objectively means she can see others more clearly as well. She soon realizes that Henry is in fact not as rigid as his children and Helen see him. The clue is that he is kind. He plays with puppies where Leonard will not; one cannot imagine Charles playing with them either. When Margaret takes Henry to a health-food restaurant as a joke, he surprises her by his openness to the experience; when she tells him that she and Helen belong to a kind of debate society, expecting to provoke him into an antifeminist rant, he responds that stimulating the mind is always good and wishes his daughter would do something similar. She is impressed.
Moreover, he’s always ready to help if asked. Margaret, who has had to play the parent since she was 13 and is always the one who cleans up after Helen disrupts things, finds herself turning to him more and more. She does not mind his dictatorial side; As Stella Gibbons wrote of her character Flora Poste in Cold Comfort Farm, “Like all strong-minded women on whom everybody flops, she adored being bossed about.” But neither Flora nor Margaret will accept being told what to do by just anyone; they only listen when the bossy person cares about them. And Henry does care. When Margaret asks him for help in finding a new home, he seizes the opportunity to propose. She accepts.
Helen reacts violently, pleading with Margaret not to marry Henry. In vain does Margaret argue that marrying Henry won’t change her; “I don’t intend him, or any man or any woman, to be all my life.” Helen doesn’t believe it, and neither does the author, interjecting that only someone who has not yet experienced marriage could say such a thing. In fact, already Margaret is beginning to “think conjugally,” to see the world from the standpoint of a we rather than an I.
Yet how Henry and Margaret will become a we is uncertain, because Henry cannot seem to find the home Margaret is longing to share with him. It is time for the Trickster to shake things up again. At Evie’s wedding, Helen crashes the reception with Leonard and Jacky in tow. Everyone’s secrets are exposed, and everyone reacts in character. Helen, who as ever has not foreseen the consequences of her actions, runs away to Europe again after impulsively sleeping with Leonard. Henry tries to keep a stiff upper lip, but Margaret forces him to really look at his own feelings for the first time. Only Margaret refuses to react in a conventional way.
The ultimate repercussion occurs when Charles and Leonard—as is inevitable when two characters are the double of each other—have a confrontation in which one of them dies.
In the end, Margaret, the one who has always questioned everything, even her own thoughts, finds the new path and leads the rest of the family onto it. The new path is the old house, Howards End, redecorated with the Schlegel belongings: a merger. Here Henry and Margaret can at last forge a new life together, one neither of them could imagine before, and for the moment peace and love shine over the house.