'Sanditon': TV Review

A frothy costume drama that subverts expectations.
1/12/2020

PBS' eight-episode British import adapts an unfinished Jane Austen novel for modern audiences.

Once you've read or seen an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, you'll never be able to consume a romantic comedy again without characterizing the love interest as either a "Wickham" or a "Darcy." The Wickham is the obvious charmer, the cutie with the sly smile who ends up being as reliable as fool's gold. The Darcy is the awkward, rancorous one hiding a gooey little heart. As a rule, the lead almost always ends up with a Darcy: Peppery Mr. Dependable.

Watching PBS' historical seaside drama Sanditon, based on an unfinished manuscript by Jane Austen, who died before she could complete it, I was puzzled by my inability to identify the Wickham. The Darcy proxy is quite conspicuous — a broody, Byronic utilitarian who slices our jejune heroine to shreds not just once, but multiple times through the season. But where is the unctuous babe who nearly seduces her to her doom?

This absence should have been my first clue that the frothy Sanditon, which, to be fair, does fluff and stretch Austen's original 11 chapters into oblivion, was not going to be the average British Regency period romance. Sure, it's tarted up. Andrew Davies, the kingpin behind popular costume dramas such as the 1995 serial Pride and Prejudice, the 2005 miniseries Bleak House and the 2013 multi-season Mr. Selfridge, has created a horny Austenian world where heroines catch a full-frontal glimpse of their love interest while swimming and where fortune seekers force each other to perform furtive outdoor handjobs. (Let's not even get into the floor humping that occurs after a pair burn a disagreeable will.) But this shallow tawdriness only masks Sanditon's mistrust of traditional marriage plots altogether. Here, single men are just as in want of a good fortune as they are in want of a wife who can provide it.

Originating on ITV and airing on Masterpiece in the U.S., the series stars newcomer Rose Williams as Charlotte Heywood, the callow but forthright daughter of a genteel countryside family who helps rescue a couple when their carriage overturns near her home. The couple, Tom and Mary Parker (Kris Marshall and Kate Ashfield), turn out to be a pair of entrepreneurs scurrying to turn a provincial fishing village into a trendy, Brighton-like coastal resort. (One can only imagine the tourist-trap Sanditon of today, where you could buy an overpriced decorative seashell with the town's name painted on it with glitter.) To thank the Heywoods for their kindness, they invite Charlotte to stay with them for a short while to give the girl a chance to explore something outside her quaint hamlet.

In Sanditon, Charlotte encounters a dizzying number of local odd fellows and harridans, starting with Mr. Parker's tempestuous siblings. Diana (Alexandra Roach) and Arthur (Turlough Convery) are an inseparable pair of hypochondriacal flibbertigibbets, often seen arm-in-arm fretting about any minor physical labor asked of them, such as walking. (Their physical closeness made me wonder if there was something untoward about their devotion to one another.) Their blustery brother, Sidney (Theo James), spikier than any other Darcy figure I've seen in an Austen adaptation, flits in and out of town, resentful of constantly having to secure more funds for  his flailing visionary brother. The fate of Sanditon lives and dies by Tom's wavering aptitude for urban planning and financial management.

Intrigue arrives in the form of Mr. Parker's main investor, the crotchety and twice-widowed grand dame Lady Denham (Anne Reid), and her poisonously competitive potential future heirs. Incestuous step-siblings Edward (Jack Fox) and Esther (Charlotte Spencer) slither around each other like serpents in heat, openly contemptuous of impoverished Clara (Lily Sacofsky), their aunt's niece from another marriage. Clara at first comes off as a pure white lily, but as an abuse survivor, she knows all too well the stakes of being left penniless when her aunt dies, and stoops to grisly lengths to maintain her aunt's favor.

Charlotte smartly steers clear of this obvious toxic glop, instead making friends with Sidney's wealthy teenage ward, Miss Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke), a biracial socialite who would much rather be gallivanting in London with her illicit boyfriend than stuck with these inane white people.

Sanditon's strong conceit gives way to too many episodes that serve as clunky filler between Charlotte's disastrous first encounter with Sidney and their eventual oozy denouement. It doesn't help that Charlotte is a dud of a lead, a simpy speck of lint blowing between more dynamic supporting characters. At this state in the development of costume drama heroines, you need to be a little more than "headstrong" to hold my attention — I'd rather spend time with a stone-cold bitch like Downton Abbey's Lady Mary, a lusty healer like Outlander's Claire or a cunning arriviste like Vanity Fair's Becky Sharp.

These women use femininity as their weapon. All Charlotte knows how to do is meddle in other people's affairs and offer unwanted opinions, which takes Sanditon to some exceedingly brainless places, such as wasting Austen's first black character on an offensive storyline about the girl being sold into slavery by her black boyfriend. (Cue the harrowing carriage chase.)  

Sanditon fares better when confronting abuses that go on behind closed doors. Like HBO's groundbreaking period romance Gentleman Jack and Hulu's Georgian bodice ripper Harlots, it doesn’t shy away from frank discussions of sexual assault and coercion, a clear sign that #MeToo has extended its tendrils to even to Merry England. Davies and company rightfully destroy the fantasy of an early 19th century era neutered by our persistent loyalty to Victorian moralism.

And surprisingly, it's not sexual-abuse survivor Clara who gets the most nuanced treatment here, but snarling fortune-hunter Esther, who comes to realize that she, too, is a victim of her brother's psychological manipulation. While Charlotte whines and pines like a half-baked Elizabeth Bennet, Esther's flames seethe across the season, first directed toward her rival, Clara, and later toward her perfidious lover. Spencer reminds me of rising star Jessie Buckley's magnetic breakout turn in Davies' 2016 serial War and Peace, which preceded her recent BAFTA-nominated turn in the country music drama Wild Rose.

Even in spite of Sanditon's many prosaic faults, I left the finale thinking, "Wow. They really went for it." The show's refreshingly gut-wrenching ending has already had fans abroad clamoring for a second season. I can't help but think back to BBC's Red Nose Day's Downton parody, where fake Julian Fellowes blithers on about his popular creation: "It's all a bit of silliness."

Cast: Rose Williams, Theo James,Kris Marshall, Anne Reid, Charlotte Spencer, Jack Fox, Lily Sacofsky, Crystal Clarke, Turlough Convery, Alexandra Roach, Kate Ashfield, Mark Stanley, Leo Suter, Jyuddah Jaymes, Adrian Scarborough, Sophie Winkleman
Executive producers: Andrew Davies, Belinda Campbell, Theo James
Premieres: Sunday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (PBS)