Howards End: The Remake

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Yeah, I went ahead and did it, I watched the 2018 remake of Howards End. I didn’t totally hate it, but still I’m not totally onboard for needing this version either. If, like me, you believe the 1992 Merchant-Ivory film was amazing and life-changing, you don’t need to bother with this four-hour TV miniseries. But then, you probably don’t run a blog about historical costume in movies and TV, do you?

2017 Howards End

Yes, that coat on Haley Atwell is recycled from Far From the Madding Crowd (2015).

I will say that the longer format of this adaption means it covers every last thing in the book that was condensed and compressed in the theatrical movie. It’s a very literal adaption in that respect, and if you’ve never seen the Merchant-Ivory film, yet have read E.M. Forster’s novel, you may appreciate this. But it will also depend on how you interpret and understand the meaning of the novel. I’ll also point out that being so precisely literal doesn’t mean this version necessarily reflects the warmth and fluidity of Forster’s words. There’s something cold and dreary in the cinematography and staging, and the pacing overall is slow and plodding instead of languid. And then there’s the acting which is … unsubtle, to be charitable.

Howards End (2017)

Tracey Ullman plays the Schlegels’ Aunt Juley, who is kind of a busybody, and wears the only interesting hats in the whole show.

See, E.M. Forster was an Victorian writing in the 20th century, edging into modernity with poetry, not force. His greatest works tackled topics such as class, sex, and race not with sweeping pronouncements on how Things Should Be but with nuanced reflections on how societal change might affect interpersonal interactions for good and ill.

At the heart of this lack of subtlety is the character of Margaret Schlegel, as written by Kenneth Lonergan and portrayed by Hayley Atwell. Yes, Forster’s words are there, but rearranged to shortchange the character, IMO. She becomes harshly pragmatic, caught between her shallow talk of social justice and her cravings for life’s comforts. Margaret pushes herself into friendship with Mrs. Wilcox and then is acquiescent to Henry Wilcox, as if her supposed free-thinking ways are just a pose that she’s happy to cast off when the right man comes along. Stripped of Emma Thompson’s sophisticated performance and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s elegant script, Margaret is merely a “hard” contrast to her “soft-hearted” sister Helen.

Howards End (2017)

Ho hum.

Another frustrating thing about this adaptation was what I can only guess is an attempt at color-blind casting. Jacky Bast (played by Rosalind Eleazar, who also plays Violet in Harlots) — lower-class Leonard Bast’s wife — is black, as is Annie, one of the maids at the Schlegels’ home, and at Margaret’s luncheon, she has two black female friends (unnamed, but one takes part in the lively conversation). Never is the fact that these women are black and living in a predominately white, mostly upper-class London society alluded to, which, in the early 1900s, would have been noticeable. For a novel that is VERY concerned with class and gender issues, to add but not discuss the intersection of race is odd.

Howards End (2017)

Jacky and Leonard Bast. Perhaps in the conversation about Leonard’s people disapproving of Jacky because she’s a ‘fallen woman,’ a nod to their interracial pairing being unusual (or not! or something!) could have been added.

1900s, unnamed woman, photo in Duke University collection

At least Jacky looked historically accurate, as this 1900s photo of an unnamed African-American woman shows (from the Duke University collection).

While the Schlegels are progressive types and could be expected to have a wide circle of friends, wouldn’t the upper-crust Wilcoxes be somewhat racist in the way of the times? For example, Charles Wilcox says, “Why be so polite to servants? They don’t understand it,” and that family doesn’t care much for the poor and the likes of Leonard Bast, so I rather expect they’d feel the same way about people of different races. But none of this is acknowledged in the 2018 Howards End, despite the casting.

 

Costumes in Howards End (2018)

While I was not impressed with the story of this new Howards End, I did find the costumes well-done and, in particular, I appreciated how costume designer Sheena Napier used the costumes to reflect the characters’ attitudes and emotional progression.

This is most obvious with Margaret Schlegel — where Hayley Atwell’s performance may be lacking, her wardrobe tries very hard! In episodes one, two, and three, before she marries Henry, she is mostly dressed in fitted blouses with a tie at the neck and long walking skirts. This is the uniform of the ‘New Woman’ of the 1890s-1910s, when a simple shirtwaist was often paired with a ‘tailor-made’ suit jacket (although no suits in this production).

The New Woman was something of an literary construct and a feminist ideal that started in 1890s writing such as that by Thomas Hardy, Sarah Grand, and Henry James. E.M. Forster was influenced by late Victorian socialist and feminist writers, so dressing Margaret in that style of an autonomous, foward-thinking ‘New Woman’ makes sense. However, as the middle episodes proceed, I felt that her severe blouse and tie were merely a costume to make it appear she’s more independent than she really is.

Howards End (2017)

Margaret in the first two episodes, all shirts and ties (and often the same skirt).

The BBC production notes say Napier and the rest of the creative team were inspired by Edwardian-era street photographer Edward Linley Sambourne. His pictures of everyday women walking down the streets of London definitely relate to the costumes and look of the production.

1905-1906, Edward Linley Sambourne

1905-1906, London, photos by Edward Linley Sambourne.

Helen Schlegel (played by Philippa Coulthard) is less severely dressed, being the more “bohemian” and impulsive sister. She wears blouses and walking skirts, but they are softer with more prints and ruffles and without ties until the confrontational scene at Evie Wilcox’s wedding.

Howards End (2017)

Both sisters wear plaid blouses, but Helen’s, center, is ruffled and loosely belted, while Margaret’s are more fitted.

1898, Delineator fashion plate

Fashion plate from The Delineator June 1898. Both plaids and dots show up in Howards End (2018) on Helen, while Margaret is all about the neckties.

Howards End (2017)

Reddish colors on Helen seem to indicate she’s taking a risk and thus setting a plot point in motion. Here, she’s visiting Howards End at the very start of episode one.

Howards End (2017)

When Helen accidentally takes Leonard Bast’s umbrella and creates their fateful connection, she wears this reddish velvet blouse with a red walking skirt.

Howards End (2017)

For tea with Leonard at the Schlegel house, Helen wears a fashion-forward (for this show) gown in red with embroidery.

Howards End (2017)

At Evie’s wedding, Helen wears only a little red in her skirt and burgundy velvet hat, but she also takes on her sister’s tie — now Helen is the free-thinking, independent one.

Starting slowly with Margaret’s engagement but especially with the scene where she accepts Henry’s apology and agrees, again, to marry him, Margaret leaves behind her New Woman uniform. Late in episode three and in all of episode four, she wears her version of the first Mrs. Wilcox’s wardrobe — aka, she becomes a typical Edwardian matron, conservative, elegant, non-threatening. Also, a bit higher class.

Howards End (2017)

Margaret wears this to Evie’s wedding — it’s feels like a riff on the black and white gown in the 1992 film designed by the team of Jenny Beavan and John Bright.

Howards End (2017)

In episode four, she armors up in this buttoned gown to deal with Henry’s infidelity.

Howards End (2017)

When she does go back to a blouse-and-skirt, the blouses are softer and fussier, and the details are more feminine. Gone are the ‘take me seriously’ stiff fabrics and ties.

Howards End (2017)

White lace blouse and white linen skirt — pretty much opposite from her look in episodes one and two.

Compare to Mrs. Wilcox (played by Julia Ormond) who is the very model of an Edwardian wife, so graceful and refined, wearing lace and a softer silhouette.

Howards End (2017)

Mrs. Wilcox (right) with her daughter, Evie, wears a long lace duster, white blouse, and white skirt. Yes, it’s the country and all the women wear light colors, but scroll back up to Helen’s first red and white outfit. She’s not afraid to stand out.

Howards End (2017)

Still at Howards End but ever so elegant.

Howards End (2017)

Mrs. Wilcox in a purple suit for her final scene, out Christmas shopping with Margaret.

1900s fashion plate

That final suit of Mrs. Wilcox’s (and the burgundy suit she wears at the luncheon) is similar to this 1900s fashion plate, except the hat is smaller. This miniseries has oddly small hats, btw.

 

Have you seen the Howards End remake? What’s your opinion?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. When she’s not dressing up in costumes, she can be found traveling the world with her sweetie and, occasionally, Kendra and Sarah. Her costuming and travel adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also maintains a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

38 Responses

  1. Kelly Wilkinson

    Completely agree with this review in every way. I did not agree with the colour-blind casting in this as EM Forster’s books reflected the strict social (especially white upper middle class) structure at the time and individuals feeling trapped by it and wanting to break free, as EM Forster did himself as a gay man. In fact, I imagine it would have been more of a focus that the sisters were friends with different ethnicities but EM Forster did not write about that, therefore they should have stuck to the story he wrote. I thought it lacked the warmth of the original too. Sorry to ramble but am a big Forster fan and his books are interesting enough without being meddled with! I dread a Room with a View remake :-(

    Reply
      • Kelly Wilkinson

        I cannot ever watch that, the original and Julian Sands has a very special place in my heart!

        Reply
    • Melanie

      Oh, but they already did an A Room With a View remake in 2007, and it was pretty dreadful. What’s next, A Passage to India?

      Reply
      • Trystan L. Bass

        I shudder to think what a modern take on the British Raj era would end up as… the colonialism is complicated enough as a period piece but add in 21st-c. political attitudes & just ew.

        Reply
  2. Becky Nankivell

    The “colorblind” casting thing in the UK is interesting. Another unrealistic effect I’ve seen is that there are almost no black-black couples.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      I’ve seen some reviewers claim it ‘adds depth’ but I swear they’re just looking at photos & didn’t actually watch the show bec. the dialog hews very closely to the book (so, yay for literary purity) & never actually mentions race.

      Reply
  3. Sarah Faltesek

    April’s issue of Vogue had a brief article about the re-make, and the writer flippantly declared that the hairstyles and blouses of the Merchant Ivory production were basically 80s fashion trying to look historical. Thinking about writing them one of those “Well ACTUALLY” emails.

    Reply
  4. Felice Erika

    The BBC (who part-made and originally aired this) have this thing going on right now where 15% of their casts/lead roles have to be played by POC by 2020 so we’re likely to see more of this hamfisted colour-blind casting in the near future. (whilst they repeatedly turn down adaptations of more modern works where the cast are POC in the source material…. it baffles the mind, honestly)

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Totally onboard with the concept, but the execution is so weak! POC existed throughout British history, so let’s talk about that, not just shove ppl into roles randomly, ugh.

      Reply
      • Susan Pola Staples

        It seems to me that the POC castes here didn’t make sense with the period. If they are going toast POC in costume dramas, it should be accurate to the time and place.

        Here, it’s weird. Although, I wouldn’t say no to Margaret and Helen having Indian upper class friends. But. the English at the time were insular, class and race conscious.

        Why not make a version of the Indian set mysteries, such as A Very Pukka Murder and its sequel, Death at the Durbar. They’re set in Indian during the 1900s

        Reply
  5. Barb Donaghey

    I did not see the movie you are comparing this to, and I haven’t read the novel. But I agree with you, the direction and screen play are pretty heavy handed, and I am not very impressed by the acting. The costumes are lovely though. I’m not sure I will see this one through. I am going to look for the movie everyone seems to like.

    Reply
  6. Brandy Loutherback

    Sorry This gets a 0.75 for me! Accurate hair and costumes,and stays reasonably accurate to Em Forster and a PoC, Still I’m sticking with the 1992 one despite all the ads for the Starz version on my Facebook! I wonder it they’ll make a sexed up version of A Room With A View or even Maurice to make them look “Progressive”! What aLoHs! a Load of Horseshit!)

    Reply
  7. Lynne Connolly

    I loved it. It kept me going through all four episodes. The movie was good, but Emma Thompson was too showy for my taste and they skimmed bits. Why should there be Only One version of this book? I suppose I like thorough. I don’t think the Brits have ever been as obsessed with colour as Americans. Because Britain was a seafaring nation and also had an empire, there was always more diversity in society. So it honestly didn’t bother me. I quite liked it, because it added an extra nuance to the story.

    The latest thing is saying that Achilles can’t be black! Troy:Fall of a City was a bit dreary, but a black Achilles is entirely possible, because the Greeks really were colour blind. They rarely commented on the colour of someone’s skin, and it’s known that there were a fair few black people in Greek society.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Maybe you’re misunderstanding — we do need POC in historical drama! But it’s doing everyone a disservice to only put black actors in a drama & ignore the fact that they’re black — especially (as I said above) in a drama that is totally obsessed with issues of class & gender. Britain was (is?) a hugely hierarchical society, which applied to POC too, so it’s historically inaccurate to gloss that over in a story that is discussing class differences & women’s independence in the 1900s.

      Reply
    • Sarah Faltesek

      Britain is not less racist than America- they just hide it a bit better. I mean, they also had slaves, but because they were not on British soil proper, England got the profits without having to look at the blood (which creates a different feel to racial politics compared to our country). For more on this, I recommend “Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race” by Reni Eddo-Lodge, a black woman from England.

      Reply
  8. Charity

    I liked it all right, but then I only saw the Emma Thompson version once, and I was about… twelve at the time. May be time for rewatch, as I recall it had an excellent cast.

    Reply
  9. Liutgard

    I’d like to know why the time period was moved. the Merchant Ivory setting was clearly late Edwardian, 1910-12ish, and the miniseries appears to be 5-8 years earlier. It really does make for a shift in tone, I think. Is there a time frame specified in the book? It’s been at least 15 years since I’ve read it.

    (And I would commit most unseemly acts to have the dress and hat that Margaret was wearing to Evie’s wedding in the MI movie. And to be able to fit, of course.)

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      The novel was published in 1910 & while no dates are specified within, it’s definitely a ‘contemporary’ work referencing things of it’s own time.

      Reply
  10. Lmoore66

    This production IS NOT a remake of the 1992 movie. It is the THIRD adaptation of the novel. And yes, I’ll be watching it the first chance I get.

    Reply
  11. ladylavinia1932

    I’d like to know why the time period was moved. the Merchant Ivory setting was clearly late Edwardian, 1910-12ish, and the miniseries appears to be 5-8 years earlier. It really does make for a shift in tone, I think. Is there a time frame specified in the book? It’s been at least 15 years since I’ve read it.

    To be honest, I have always been somewhat confused by the time span in the movie. However, I think it began before 1910.

    Reply
  12. Mari

    Thanks so much for this review! I plan to see this version. I’m almost certain I won’t like it as much as the Emma Thompson / Anthony Hopkins etc. version, but still looking forward to it. Wonderful novel.

    Reply
  13. ladylavinia1932

    I loved it. It kept me going through all four episodes. The movie was good, but Emma Thompson was too showy for my taste and they skimmed bits. Why should there be Only One version of this book? I suppose I like thorough. I don’t think the Brits have ever been as obsessed with colour as Americans. Because Britain was a seafaring nation and also had an empire, there was always more diversity in society. So it honestly didn’t bother me. I quite liked it, because it added an extra nuance to the story.

    Actually, I believe they are. But I think they hide their racism better than Americans do.

    Reply
  14. Janette

    The danger of “colour blind” casting of this kind is that it white washes history too, implying that there was no racism in the past. My other concern is that there is a subtext which is saying “everyone is white really”, which is deeply deeply racist so either way the pretence that black people were able to mingle as equals in British society in 1900 is dangerous and not the way to redress the racial imbalance in film and tv. (Maybe producing a few dramas and films about non-brits would be a good start or showing films and tv dramas not made in Britian/US also an excellent move.)

    Reply
  15. Deb

    I’ve only seen Episode 1 so far. Love the Liberty print ties, scarves, & shawl. But what’s up with all the ugly, flat, & (mostly) knitted hats? Was this another part of the “New Woman” outfit?

    Reply
  16. Kelly

    I’ve watched the first two episodes (as far as I can tell that’s all that’s available to stream, or at least for U.S. viewers using Starz via Amazon add on) and I actually liked this Jacky better than the 1992 Jacky. I didn’t like how the 1992 version went with this over the top characterization of her as totally stupid and pathetic and awkwardly seemed to make some of her actions comedic. This Jacky might do the same things but there’s more nuance an self-awareness there.

    Reply
  17. JustMe

    I’m all for color-blind casting for a production of something as old and well-known as Shakespeare, or Greek literature. Here, though, it feels odd. This time period is close enough to our own that we know how much of a big deal race would have been. So putting people of color in the film, without having their characters face the challenges unique to people of color in that culture and time period, is like making a story in Germany in the 1940s without alluding to that whole holocaust thing that was happening.

    Reply
  18. Justme

    I feel like I should give the 1992 version of HE another try. My first viewing of it was tainted by the fact that a friend’s woman-hating homophobic brother brought it to a party for a group of us to watch, and kept talking about how great it was. So I wasn’t paying very close attention, and my take on it at the time was “Feminist marries rich caveman for no good reason, eventually learns her place and that Feminism Is Silly, gets thrown a bone in the end.”
    Now that I’m familiar with the book, I see how it’s more of an exploration of the oppressive class structure and gender norms of Edwardian England. Definitely requires superb acting to pull off the nuanced characters, though, and it sounds like this latest version doesn’t deliver.
    So maybe I’ll give the 1992 version another watch. After all, I think I have a better understanding of my friend’s brother now. Sure hope he finds his way out of that armored closet some day. I think we’ll all be happier then.

    Reply

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