In my recent film review of the new Jane Austen-derived movie “Emma.,” I took a couple of swipes at the recently concluded Jane Austen-derived “Sanditon” on PBS’s “Masterpiece.” Upon reflection, I have decided that this isn’t enough: A proper pillorying is in order. I’m not sure which is worse, the cynicism of the creative team behind this milksop approximation of Austen’s ironic comedies of manners or the certainty of PBS executives that insecure American audiences will swallow any codswallop if it comes with the “Jane Austen” brand and Empire waists.
That’s about all “Sanditon” has in common with the six completed novels Austen wrote in her lifetime — classics like “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility,” “Emma,” even her wickedly playful slam on Gothic fiction, “Northanger Abbey.” With the exception of the last, all the major works have been adapted to film or TV on multiple occasions, and so the time has come to scrape the bottom of the barrel.
Thing is, even Austen’s barrel scrapings can be pretty good. “Lady Susan,” a short novel of letters written in the author’s youth but not published until six decades after her death in 1817, was turned by director Whit Stillman into a marvelous 2016 comedy called “Love and Friendship,” starring Kate Beckinsale and featuring Tom Bennett as one of the great idiots of recent movies. The film is both fun and true to Austen, which is harder than it looks.
(For the record, my picks for the best adaptations over the years would be, in no order: “Love and Friendship”; “Clueless”, 1995; Ang Lee’s 1995 “Sense and Sensibility”; the 1995 BBC/WGBH production of “Persuasion”; and a toss-up between the 2005 Keira Knightley film version of “Pride and Prejudice” and the 1995 BBC miniseries version featuring the all-time hands-down best Darcy, Colin Firth. I don’t know what was in the water in 1995, but Austen, at 220 years old, was clearly that season’s It Girl.)
“Sanditon” was her final work; she completed eleven chapters before taking ill and dying. The setting and characters are all there: Charlotte Heywood, the daughter of a country gentleman, is invited to spend the summer at the quiet fishing village of Sanditon, which the entrepreneur Tom Parker hopes to turn into a seaside resort for the titled swells of London. He’s backed by the persnickety local noblewoman, Lady Denham, and assisted by his brother, the smolderingly rude Sidney Parker, who, in turn, has as his ward the newly arrived West Indian heiress Miss Lambe.
There’s more, but not much more, and that has enabled a century of “continuators” — a real word, apparently — to have their way with this story since it finally appeared in print. Think of their efforts as primordial fan fiction, to the point, in one modern-dress Web series, of grafting the characters from “Pride and Prejudice” onto the stump of “Sanditon.”
The new TV version seems to have been produced under the assumption — probably correct — that most people like to watch Austen rather than actually read her. Accordingly, the “continuated” “Sanditon” plays more like a heavy-breathing romance novel, embossed cover and all, than one of the author’s precise, warmly ironic studies of men, women, and moral character in Regency England.
The emphasis, in other words, is on event rather than interaction. Those conversations that in Austen can be deliciously multi-leveled bouts of badminton here devolve into dialogue that advances the next chunk of plot and then gargles for a bit in period grammar. If the role of Charlotte had been cast with an actress possessing a little presence of mind — alive to the crosscurrents of what is said and not said by the people around her — well, we’d have someone more on her toes than Rose Williams, who is lovely and mild and seemingly much too young for the sport. Austen wrote women; this Charlotte is a girl, and one with about 2½ expressions, all of which flutter in panic across her face when she catches Sidney Parker skinny-dipping in the English Channel, a sequence closer to the heated fantasies of the continuators than anything Austen bothered to dream up.
The miscasting extends to Anne Reid as Lady Denham, a case of a fine actress with a common touch — see her in the rollicking BBC series “Last Tango in Halifax” or as a woman having a late-life affair in the 2003 film “The Mother” — playing a titled non-commoner. Theo James (“Divergent”) glowers manfully as Sidney Parker, the scripts pulling him this way and that in the effort to keep his intentions murky, and the character of Miss Lambe — “half-mulatto” in Austen’s original and played here by the Caribbean-American actress Crystal Clarke — is introduced in the first episode only to spend the next seven sulking while any attempt to address the issue of race in Austen’s universe is nervously avoided.
The only performer who escapes this soggy fruitcake is the story’s nominal villainess Esther Denham, who’s angling after her aunt’s money while having some kind of kinky “Game of Thrones” thing going with her stepbrother (Jack Fox), although they don’t actually have sex because nobody has sex in Austen until after all repressed passions have been declared and matrimony can safely ensue. That said, Charlotte Spencer plays Esther with a ripely cool-headed calculation that is oddly erotic in this setting and among these stiffs. I’m not sure that was the intent, but whenever Spencer’s onscreen, “Sanditon” shudders briefly to life.
Look, the Brits tried to warn us. “Sanditon” aired on England’s ITV last fall to general opprobrium — one critic called it “Crappy Pride and Prejudice” — and the fact that low ratings resulted in the plug being pulled after the first season means that we’re stuck with the most downer Jane Austen ending ever. (Spoiler alert: Sidney finally confesses his love to Charlotte but ends up getting engaged to another woman to save his brother’s investment. Dude.)
A perfect misfire, then, from beginning to bilious end, and still PBS has been flogging it to audiences for the past three months as if “Sanditon” were the Regency equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This is what Austen’s legacy has been parboiled down to in 21st-century popular culture: a pledge-week promise of “quality” TV in which the signifiers of said quality are posh accents, top hats, and discreetly heaving cleavage but not anything the characters actually do or say.
But, hey, you got a new tote bag out of it. And the certifiably classy actress Laura Linney has a nice gig intoning the word “Masterpiece” at the start of every episode. But I could swear I hear her wincing.