Sunday, 3 December 2017

TV Review – Howards End Episode 3 BBC1

Condensing Howards End into four episodes must have been a challenge for the writer (Kenneth Lonergan), but as we reached the penultimate episode it was all coming together nicely. He has all his plates spinning and he’s keeping them balanced, just as a novelist would be in the large central section of a book. The idea was to concentrate on the Schlegel sisters and the men in their lives and this does allow a wider look at other main themes.

The opening scene was a bit stagey and heavy-handed in showing Margaret Schlegel displaying her interest in the latest car being driven by the Wilcox chauffeur. It served to indicate her feminism, contrasting with the older Wilcox and his old-fashioned view of the roles of men and women, but there is little to reinforce the idea of Margaret as a New Woman apart from this and her decision to take the initiative in giving a passionate kiss later. I am left with the feeling that the Margaret in the novel might be more complex, interesting and likeable than the one in this series.

After the initial car scene the acting and dialogue became more believable, with a convincing marriage proposal that takes place without either person saying it explicitly and both cutting the other’s sentences short and saying they understood. Wilcox became more likeable than before in his modest expectation of rejection and offer to help with housing nonetheless. Margaret’s motives are hard to fathom, especially when she makes it clear to Wilcox that she agrees he should pass his money to his sons and daughters.

It’s hard to see what has drawn her to him and it seems like a genuine attraction, even if his attempt at a kiss is initially looks unwelcome. The Margaret who worried about her sister Helen being led on and abandoned by Wilcox’s son in the first episode, seemingly at his father’s request, has vanished. She has no time for Helen’s objections even if we are suddenly reminded by Helen’s own memories that Wilcox is the stuffy and cold authoritarian who hid behind his newspaper to make her feel unwelcome in his home.

Wilcox had been winning us over with his humble proposal in this episode and his willingness to ‘enjoy’ a meal at the protein café at Margaret’s invitation, despite others saying the reformed food is vile. However, we soon see his other side when he just expects Margaret to do as he says. He is inconsiderate about her Aunt Juley’s need of her company on a seaside break and takes her away, speaking over her objections. He also tells her which of his houses she will live in with him without consulting her, only letting her know when she asks.

Margaret’s first view of the empty Howards End is a striking moment. It’s almost derelict without the family there and she seems to fall in love, which many viewers will understand and identify with. In this episode we discover that Howards End is not the only or the main property Wilcox owns and he doesn’t want to live in it. This makes it unacceptable that he ignored his wife’s dying wish to leave it to Margaret (I would still have liked to see more of their short but deep friendship).

Worst of all he has no conscience when he hears his advice has led to Leonard Bast giving up a safe job as a bank clerk and taking on a lower paid job. He doesn’t even remember Bast or that he said the bank was going to have serious financial difficulty. The bank is in no trouble at all, but Bast’s new employer lays him off, leaving him struggling with serious poverty and his live-in partner Jackie ill and malnourished. When he is unwilling to ask the Schlegel sisters for charity, Jackie calls on Margaret to ask for help.

Helen’s response is as immature and tactless as her behaviour in earlier episodes, making us cringe as she drags Bast and Jackie on a train to confront Wilcox at his daughter’s wedding to insist he takes responsibility for his incorrect advice. When Margaret sees them at the wedding marquee she seems to have turned into an echo of Wilcox, shocking Helen by insisting they should leave. However, she offers to speak to Wilcox in a more conventional way to ask him to find Bast a new job.

Wilcox comes good with an offer to please Margaret, even though he believes Bast’s problems are all of his own making. The bringing together of Bast, Jackie and Wilcox leads to a revelation about Wilcox’s past and I’ll be interested to see in the final episode if Margaret will accept it with so-called Bloomsbury open-mindedness about polyamory or if it’s just a new way of turning a blind eye to the patriarchal behaviour of men like Wilcox.

Bast remains the most interesting character to me, and the subtlety of Joseph Quinn’s acting works superbly in this role. So much has to be suggested by looks, body language and few words: his despair at his poverty and loss of work; his feeling of failure at not looking after Jackie; his humiliation at being pressurised to ask for charity and his polite way of understating it in his letter so that Margaret would have to be an expert at reading between the lines to know how much trouble he’s in. The moment he sees Margaret in his home we feel the shock and humiliation with him and we cringe with him on the train he would certainly never have got onto with Helen without Jackie going along with the plan.

When Margaret asks him to leave and says Helen has misled him in expecting Wilcox to help, Bast is only too eager to apologise and go, but Margaret is charitable enough to put him up in a local hotel where Jackie soon falls asleep and he’s left alone with Helen. This moment feels as if it has been inevitable since his first awareness of her sitting beside him at the classical music concert. Helen finally listens to him, rather than treating him to her philanthropy. In few words he tells of his working class family cutting him off because of his relationship and we find out the back story that has left him in his trapped situation. But he does care for Jackie and when Helen says they can’t have anything in common it’s a poignant moment when he answers, ‘We have companionship in common.’ His acceptance of Jackie with her past, and his greater compassion for her because of it, marks him out as the most appealing and ethical character.

Despite her immature behaviour and tactlessness, Helen has also become more likeable because her motives are laudable. She has also started to see Bast as an equal. It’s a significant moment and Joseph Quinn somehow charges the atmosphere with a type of charisma I admire and don’t quite understand in an actor. How exactly does he do it with so few words and restrained body language? When he crosses the room to help Helen close the window, standing close and reaching across her to do it, there’s more erotic tension than in an explicit scene. He has quickly established himself as an actor I would watch a television series to see.

All three first episodes are on BBC iPlayer for a while and they’re well worth seeing, and the fourth will join them after it’s aired this evening.

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