TV review: Howards End, BBC One (4 stars)

TV review: Howards End, BBC One

Adaptation of EM Forster's classic novel starring Hayley Atwell, Julia Ormand and Matthew MacFadyen

When you think of period dramas you instantly think of the BBC. Downtown Abbey aside, the Beeb has pretty much cornered the market. Their latest lavish production is Howards End. Of course it's not the first adaptation of EM Forster's classic, famously brought to the big screen by Merchant Ivory in 1992, winning three Oscars in the process. That's not the only connection with the Academy as Kenneth Lonergan, who picked up a coveted gold statuette for Manchester By the Sea, has written the screenplay for this four part TV series.

It starts as a genteel tale of life at country manor Howards End as viewed through the eyes of young Helen Schlegel (Philippa Coultard) while summering with the Wilcox family. A close knit clan presided over by Ruth and Henry (Julia Ormand and Matthew MacFadyen). Love blossoms then fades just as quickly and Helen returns to London and her sister Margaret (Hayley Atwell). When one of the Wilcox dies, the family's world is thrown into confusion and grief, especially considering a very specific request in their last will and testament concerning the future of Howards End.

As to be expected it's beautifully made. Howards End looks gorgeous and there's a wonderful soothing pace. Lonergan draws on the themes of morality in Forster's 1910 novel and makes the story feel incredibly relevant to today's debates on sexism, tolerance, honesty and equality (especially in the Schlegel's relationship with young clerk Leonard Bast, played by Joseph Quinn). Atwell and rising star Coultard bring a real spark to their role as two questioning young women in Edwardian society. MacFadyen is equally engaging as he wrestles with a crisis of conscience.

Lonergan's script, directed by Hettie Macdonald, brings out the best in Forster, and even amongst the BBC's enviable back catalogue of costume dramas Howards End stands out as a wonderful, charming and intelligent adaptation.

Howards End starts on BBC One, Sun 12 Nov, 9pm.