A four-part miniseries based on E. M. Forster's classic novel, Howards End - previously, and famously, adapted into a movie in 1992 featuring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson - premieres on Starz this Sunday, April 8th.
Starring Hayley Atwell and Matthew Macfadyen, Howards End recounts the tale of social conventions, codes of conduct and class relations in turn-of-the-century England, focusing on three families of varied levels of wealth (or lack thereof). Atwell stars as Margaret Schlegel (the character Thompson portrayed in the film), who along with her more impulsive sister Helen (Philippa Coulthard) are living relatively liberated lives in Edwardian London along with their aunt (Tracey Ullman).
"I feel like it's very encouraging, comforting and empowering to have a female-led narrative, directed by a woman (Hettie Macdonald), with two female roles central to the story, written by a man who's made them analytical, logical and complex along with being irrational and emotional," Atwell told me about how Howards End remains relative and relatable here in 2018. "The women are also educated and sexy and all these different things. You know, Emma Thompson said that E. M. Forster is one of literature's first proper feminists. And I see that. I go 'Oh yeah, he really loved women.' He saw them as humans. He was interested in them. He didn't make them fit into slots like she's the sexual ingenue, she's the old spinster, and stuff like that."
Atwell, who MCU fans know as Peggy Carter, from both movies and TV, likened Margaret to Peggy in the sense that both of them ran contrary to how women were expected to behave in their respective eras. "She's kind of extraordinary," Atwell shared. "She's described as being eccentric within the context of her own family, but she's not a provocateur. "She's a little different from Peggy in the sense that she's not bucking up against anything. What she does have is just an extraordinary intellect of someone who's very inquisitive about the world and very judgmental when it comes to what she things about people. But she's always willing to be proven wrong and is very humble about it when she discovers someone might not be who she thought they were initially."
"Margaret's also self-aware enough to know, unlike many women of the time, that she has a level of privilege," Atwell added. "Not in the sense that she was born into wealth or anything, but she's also not going to starve. She lives on probably the equivalent of $40,000 a year nowadays. Which is a decent way to live if you don't have to work at all. But it's also not, say, a million a year. So she's not buying fabulous outfits or going on holidays to exotic locations. She lives on a budget but it's still a comfortable life."
Despite this though, Margaret remains aware that posturing never leads to change. "She knows that sitting down at charity lunches with other posh women talking about social reform means f*** all," Atwell laughed. She actually wants to do something and be of use. She seeks to create actual change. She doesn't have an aggressive or hostel push for action though. Hers is more reflective and analytical and logical. She is rigorously honest with herself too and is able to recognize her hypocrisies when they arise."
One of the many reasons Atwell decided to do this project, aside from the book and the character, was the fact that Kenneth Lonergan (Gangs of New York, Manchester by the Sea) was adapting it. "He's someone who's known for his naturalistic dialogue," Atwell explained. "I'd just seen Manchester by the Sea and I was fascinated by how he might approach and adapt this book. And he'd mentioned, at first, all the reasons why he shouldn't adapt it but was then told that they were all the reasons he should do it. Because he wouldn't give reverence to it being this superior literary English thing. He would debunk it and demystify it with his very naturalistic style of writing."
Matt Fowler is a writer for IGN and a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA). Follow him on Twitter at @TheMattFowler and Facebook at Facebook.com/MattBFowler.