The Sanditon Review by Alison Jane Reid
STOP PRESS – Watch Sanditon on Masterpiece PSB from January 12th, 2020. and the official DVD of the series will be released on November 18th. Order it now – Sanditon I would love to have published this sooner. Sadly my mother is very ill. I hope you enjoy reading this long-form review.
Reader, dare I utter the words Sanditon and an outrageous clifftop ending without eliciting an extreme attack of biliousness, disquiet, shock and disappointment at the audacity of love undone? Reader: he didn’t marry her. Isn’t Brexit enough misery to heap on a nation? Sidney and Charlotte should have been the new Darcy and Elizabeth.
Mr. Andrew Davies, it’s a dangerous game to meddle with an Austen happy ending. The only consolation is that Rose Williams gives a career-defining performance as Charlotte Heywood in Jane Austen’s quite remarkable final and unfinished novel. A daring, colourful exploration of love, entrepreneurship, identity, and family. Charlotte is no pale, insipid girl waiting for a wealthy man to propose. She’s an accomplished renaissance woman.
When she isn’t in a scene we long for her presence. She’s a joy to watch and she shimmers with coming of age charm, intelligence, the right degree of impulsiveness and the beauty, elegance, and charisma to make us all long for fittings for the mid-summer ball and the ability to excel at cricket, dancing, architecture and the classics!
She’s no simpering sypher to any man either. She can stench a wound, think fast when her friend is abducted, give the boys a run at cricket, admonish her man for the slave trade and quote from the classics. In many ways, she is a very modern role model and that is important because we can relate to her struggles, triumphs, youthful social gaffs, and crushing disappointments.
Oh to be 22 again, and wafting around in sprigged white muslin in rowing boats and carriages reading Heraclitus.
While Theo James was born to play the misunderstood and broken Darcy archetype. Even though Austen’s original manuscript ends shortly after Charlotte and Sidney are first introduced, she provides enough riveting information about Sidney as a man of fashion, intellect, and humour by his brother Tom, for Davies to make him the hero of Sanditon and Charlotte’s inevitable love match.
“There is someone in most families privileged by superior abilities or spirits to say anything – In ours it is Sidney, who is a very clever young man, and with great powers of pleasing – He lives too much in the world to be settled; that is his only fault. – He is here there and everywhere. I wish we may get him to Sanditon. I should like to have you acquainted with him. – And it would be a fine thing for the place! – Such a young man as Sidney, with his neat equipage and fashionable air. – You and I, Mary, know what effect it might have: many a respectable family, many a careful mother, many a pretty daughter, might it secure for us to the prejudice of Eastbourne and Hastings.”
Initially, James plays him as a lost man about town, who boxes, runs with a fast set and appears, rude, cruel and closed off. Then we learn that his heart was broken by a woman called Eliza who suddenly ended their engagement to marry a wealthier suitor.
Sidney’s romantic rehabilitation is subtle, slow and authentic. We see his disdain for Charlotte turn to surprise and then admiration as his heart thaws. Nor is he afraid to show his feelings when he declares, “I don’t want to dance with anyone else,” “ I underestimated you’ or “ I am my truest self when I am with you.” – now that takes balls. Theo James plays Sidney with a mixture of animal magnetism, English eccentricity, wildness, and emotion – no wonder the rumours about playing 007 are circulating. His performance as Sidney Parker is more than equal to Colin Firth’s performance as Mr Darcy in the 1995 dramatisation of Pride and Prejudice.
Did you notice that Davies reworks the infamous scene in Pride and Prejudice where Colin Firth emerges from his lake in a clingy white shirt, the equivalent of a wet t-shirt for the Regency period? This time Davies is more daring and naturalistic.
Sidney emerges from the waves after a spot of nude swimming, at which point he runs into Charlotte who promptly runs away in horror. Is it necessary for James to be naked? Well, Daniel Craig kept his shorts on in Casino Royale and caused a global incident. For heat, I prefer the scene where Sidney and Charlotte come together for the first time and dance at the masqued ball after rescuing Georgiana from ‘ruination’. Who knew that hand placement could be so hot, so thrilling, so electrifying, so everything.
And that carriage chase was quite something. Classic melodrama and perfect training for 007.
Up until this point, Davies’s bold, ravishing to look at adaptation of Jane Austen’s wickedly satirical but unfinished last novel Sanditon, has, on the whole, been a success and required Sunday night viewing. Though in truth, it is just Pride and Prejudice retold, beside the sea. But that doesn’t matter. There are many ways to tell the same story and Jane Austen devotees will happily wallow in each and every one of them because they represent the ideal of love.
But was it worth the eventual disappointment?
The answer is a resounding yes, because Andrew Davies is so very good at making period drama relevant and compelling to a 21st– century audience, and we’re obsessed with the past. It’s also a chance for some great ensemble acting and costumes to inspire a new rush for frockcoats and empire evening gowns. How could we tire of that?
So, picture those languorous, painterly scenes of alpha men in their towering top hats and cricket whites on the beach and Charlotte’s beguiling transformation from rose-bud country girl to the sensuous, gilded golden belle of the masqued ball.
The romantic highwater mark of the entire adaptation comes when Lord Babington asks Charlotte if it is possible for a woman’s entire opinion of a man to change in a matter of a few hours. At that point we see our heroine acknowledge her growing and bewildering attachment to Mr Sidney Parker, “a man who inspires such anger in me; and yet his good opinion matters to me more than anyone,” she tells her new friend Lady Worcester, who delivers this immortal line, “My dear girl, love is an affliction, one cannot choose who one falls in love with – it’s like the measles.”
Minutes later Charlotte and Sidney are locked together in that dance which is as hot as Dirty Dancing!
Girls we need to learn the Quadrille.
Now to the script. No writer who dares to finish or adapt a novel by Miss Jane Austen can ever quite match her wit, her wasp turn of phrase, or acute, penetrating dissection upon what it is that makes us human and fallible. Even so, Davies’s Sanditon does sparkle with some memorable lines on the abiding themes of all Austen novels – love, money, position and power, and the glue that ties it together – matrimony.
Ann Reid frequently steals every scene she is in as the fierce and grumpy Lady Denham, a woman with a knack for marrying above her station and outliving each of her husbands’ adding to her wealth. She also has the best lines, especially this, “It is better to be loved that to love,” and “Love! Love! Marriage is a business contract, nothing more.”
Given how unfinished the Austen manuscript is, Davies borrows heavily from the Pride and Prejudice narrative which goes like this. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall out spectacularly. Hatred, contempt, and misunderstanding ensues. Then, comes gradual rehabilitation and discovery. There must be a trial or act of heroism which leads to admiration, love, declaration, and matrimony.
Having read and re-read Austen fragment in recent days, I do feel that Davies has succeeded in capturing Austen’s vivid, picaresque sketched portrait of Regency seaside life. Especially the character of Mr Tom Parker, played by Kris Marshall. Tom’s reckless obsession with turning a small fishing village into the glittering playground of the beau monde is not matched by his abilities to succeed. Kate Ashfield plays his neglected wife with grace, elegance, and steel when required.
While the constant scheming and bickering of Lady Denham’s impoverished heirs reflect Austen’s very detailed back story of the Denham clan, which Davies embellishes with plots and escapades worthy of the Medici.
One area where he excels is in the story of Miss Georgiana Lambe played by Crystal Clarke – the mixed-race heirless from the West Indies with a fortune of £100,000, a vast sum in the 19th century. While Austen paints her only black heroine as frail, Davies prefers to make her feisty, cultured, love-sick and quite bereft, lost between two worlds, the first that of her white aristocratic father, and the second, the world of her enslaved mother. Her story is full of Austen melodrama, but it is in the scenes where she and Otis talk about grand houses, sugar, and cotton built on the backs of the slave trade that her story is most powerful.
Davies’s Sanditon dissects many universal themes, which are just as relevant today – social class, race, money, power, aspiration, and identity.
It makes engrossing television.
Then, at the very last frame, Davies throws the audience off a cliff, when what we wanted was more quadrilles and erotic hand touching at the Mid Summer Ball and for Sidney to sweep Charlotte off the balcony where he had once thoroughly insulted her in true harmonious Austen style.
While I do think that Jane Austen would be delighted with Rose William’s thoroughly affecting debut as her spirited and very capable heroine of Sanditon, Charlotte Heywood – a ‘ pleasing’ young woman capable of surprising even the most jaded and broken of men with her beauty, humanity and accomplishments; But I don’t think Austen would be amused by Andrew Davies daring to meddle with the priceless Austen formula.
Instead, Davies gives us a different wedding as the consolation prize when the petulant, troubled and insecure Esther bags Lord Babington, played with charisma and aplomb by Mark Stanley. Charlotte spencer delivers an accomplished, complex portrait as Esther Denham. A woman without a fortune, who is caught between her cruel, coercive step-brother Edward and her fierce, mercenary aunt who would happily marry her off to any man with £50,000. Unsurprisingly, she feels worthless and is astonished that Babington loves her just as she is.
What a prince amongst men who won’t be the first or last man to be turned on by a shrew who isn’t really a shrew at all. But we really didn’t need to witness Esther glowing like a queen as she bags herself a lord, a fortune and a champion – at what should have been Charlotte and Sidney’s wedding!
However, I will say this. Babington, I would go carriage driving with you forever and a day. In many ways, you are the ideal of the perfect man – handsome, sexy, not messed up, very rich, dashing in a frock coat, laid back, but never boring, and all you yearn for is to walk by a woman’s side. Babington, you are a catch!
That was cruel Mr Davies. How will you ever make amends? How about Sanditon Part Two? I hear you have some very exciting ideas for what happens next to Charlotte and Sidney. Please whisk us back to Sanditon and the Parker and Denham families very soon. We demand two more happy endings. One for Charlotte and the other for Miss Lambe.
The Sanditon Review Copyright Alison Jane Reid November 2019.
Watch Sanditon on the ITV Hub at www.itv.com
Images courtesy of ITV Press Office.
Love reading Alison Jane Reid’s long-form entertainment reviews? Then read this one – A Merlinesque Love Letter to The Durrells