The 1992 film adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End is still so sumptuous, so thrilling in its excavation of buried Edwardian desire, that you might question whether a new version is necessary. Yet Kenneth Lonergan’s four-part miniseries, which arrives Sunday on Starz, is its own masterpiece, visually lavish and narratively restrained. Lonergan and the director Hettie Macdonald find something profound in the story’s clash of cultures between the liberal, bourgeois Schlegels and the emotionally repressed, establishment Wilcoxes that feels vital in this particular moment. If people disagree on such fundamental levels, it asks, can they still love each other? Should they?
There’s something almost comforting in the familiarity of the characters at play—their intellectual sparring matches and their philosophical objections to one another. The show opens with a man delivering mail, a clue that communication is imperative to the plot. Helen Schlegel (Philippa Coulthard) writes a letter to her older sister, Margaret (Hayley Atwell), from the home of the Wilcoxes, who are acquaintances from a German vacation. Helen’s infatuated with their house, Howards End, with its apple trees and dog-roses, and with the family, who are enthrallingly alien to her. Mr. Wilcox (Matthew Macfadyen), she writes, “says the most horrid things about women’s suffrage so nicely.” She’s thrilled by how efficiently he dismantles her ideas about equality, but reports to Margaret that he’s not actually the dominant force in the household—his wife is.