Don’t write off Howard’s End off as another attempt to give us a bunch of GIFs of a Mr. Darcy type jumping into a lake or a Matthew Crawley explaining a weekend. Matthew Macfadyen, who plays male lead Henry Wilcox in Starz’s upcoming adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel, is certainly charming, but he’s not the focus of the story.
Instead, the period drama centers on Hayley Atwell’s Margaret Schlegel and her sisters as they navigate the social conventions of early 20th century England. Atwell and others involved in the miniseries, which airs early next year, explained as much Friday at the show’s Television Critics Association press day at the Beverly Hills, Calif.
Atwell says that, despite the corsets, this is a fun character to play.
“I think Kenny Lonergan’s adaptation is very fresh and has a lot of energy to it. There are many scenes with overlapped dialogue, so even though we stuck to the script, the script had this fantastic lightness and touch to it, and wit.”’
She says this meant that, “despite the constrictions of the costumes and the period, we did feel that we wanted to make it accessible to modern audiences by not making it feel mannered or held.”
She recalls looking at photographs of Edwardian woman who had to stand very still for their portraits. She says that’s how we tend to think of these people. But then she saw photos of them moving, their skirts floating, and realized “Oh! They moved like we did!” She says that was important for director Hettie Macdonald to realize on screen and not “fall into the trap of ‘period drama’ acting.”
Executive producer Colin Callender stresses that this is a different take on the story than the classic Merchant & Ivory adaptation.
Callender first read the book as a teenager. Now, having read it again as a father of teen daughters, he realized that it’s as “pertinent today as ever.”
“The great thing about a book like Howard’s End is that the resonances and reverberations of it change in the context of time… In this instance, re-reading Howard’s End showed that [it] could be explored more fully in four hours than in the film because it’s about these two sisters trying to find their way in a man’s world.”
He likes “the opportunity to focus the drama around the two sisters, and be able to do it with modern, fresh playwright and screenwriter like Kenny Lonergan was a glorious opportunity.”
Lonergan is what sealed the deal for Atwell to star in the production.
“I hadn’t read the book, and I’d seen the film a long time ago,” she admits, adding that she saw Lonergan’s film Manchester by the Sea a few days before being offered the role: “That’s what got me on board.”
Emma Thompson, who won an Academy Award for playing Margaret in the Merchant & Ivory film, told Atwell that the book is about girl power.
“She said E.M. Forster is one of literature’s first proper feminists,” Atwell says. “Although they’re not making an aggressive point that ‘women are smart as well,’ they just naturally are because they’re human. We have these two central roles for women who are ideological, they’re literal, they’re rational and they use their reason, but are also emotionally intelligent. But they’re self-aware.”
It’s the sisters who drive the story.
“There’s a description in the book of them being one goddess with lots of limbs and overlapping,” Atwell says. “I felt that in Kenny’s scripts, there was a lot of overlaps and answering each other’s sentences and knowing each other inside out while also being completely different to each other.”
Is this film a social commentary?
“I’m a working-class girl, and the class system perpetuates in my country and in this country, too—and that’s what fascinates me,” says Tracey Ullman, who plays Margaret’s Aunt Juley. “And it’s still tough for girls—curious, liberal girls like Margaret and Helen.”
Is it emasculating?
Not really, but…
“We had this joke that the dark side of the story is that Meg is slowly emasculating, infantilizing, Mr. Wilcox,” Atwell laughs. “One of the last things he says in the scripts is ‘Have I done wrong?’ Before then, he’s a man who’s so certain and so stoic and everything he does is right.”
So why did Ullman, who is known for her many comic roles, want to be cast in this miniseries?
“I wanted to be in this very much because I want to take over from Judi Dench and Maggie Smith,” she says.
Still, the comedian says, “it’s tough without makeup and props, but it’s lovely to be offered parts like this.”