There have been many adaptations of Jane Austen’s work for film and TV. The latest is Sanditon for ITV and PBS, where they attempt to finish her unfinished novel.
Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) is a young woman who lives on her family farm with her ten siblings. After helping Tom and Mary Parker (Kris Marshall and Kate Ashfield) after an accident, Charlotte agrees to go with them to Sanditon, a town they plan to develop into a seaside resort. In the town, Charlotte makes friends with Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke) and has a love-hate relationship with Tom’s handsome brother, Sidney (Theo James).
Also, within the town, Tom tries to keep his financial troubles secret, two cousins battle to inherit their childless aunt’s wealth, and two step-siblings are stuck in a scandalous relationship.
Sanditon was written by Andrew Davies, a man for adapting classic literature for TV. His credits include the BBC adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, War and Peace, and Les Misérables. Sanditon was different because the novel never finished. The first episode follows the 17 chapters that Austen wrote and everything after that was an original work.
Davies aimed to make a darker version of Austen’s work. That meant the series had more sex and violence than other adaptations, and there were themes of rape, child abuse, incest, and forced marriages. The first episode established this when Charlotte caught two characters having a secret liaison in the woods and doing adult actions.
This darker approach worked best with Clara (Lily Sacofsky), a young woman who in the care of her aunt, Lady Denham (Anne Reid). Clara revealed early on that she was sexually abused as a child, and that shadow still lingered over her because if it’s revealed she would be tainted. She was innocent and frankly, a bit thick around her aunt – but this was an act. Clara partook in some passive-aggressive sparring with Esther (Charlotte Spencer), one of her rivals to the inheritance. They had to remain calm and polite as they taunt each other.
Episode Six was the one that went down a darker route because a character was kidnapped and taken to London. This was an episode where London was shown to be a sleazy place of gambling houses, and brothels and women are literally gambled away. While in Sanditon, this episode had a fairly graphic sex scene. This sort of material has divided Austen fans since her work was generally seen as clean, cute fun.
Although the series had darker aspects, Sanditon still uses a lot of Jane Austen tropes. This was a series that men dressed in fancy suits, women wore pretty dresses and there events like balls and cricket matches. Women spoke in a refined manner, and the show’s focus was on all the character dynamics. The relationship between Charlotte and Sidney was basically Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcey because they argued, had contempt for each other, but were also attracted as well. Their relationship swung like a pendulum.
The more interesting romantic relationship was between Esther and her love interests. She was in a relationship with her stepbrother (Jack Fox) and believes they are in love with each other. But he is a manipulative figure who knows how to control Esther. She has a courter interest in her in the form of Lord Babington (Mark Stanley), a nice wealthy man who Esther tries to resist. But she does let her guard down around him and reveals an occasional smile. Esther does soften as the series progresses, going from an unlikeable ice queen to being more sympathetic as more was revealed about her.
Sanditon‘s cast was mostly made up of up-and-comers and fairly well known British actors. Theo James was the biggest star in the series and also acted as a producer. The most memorable cast member was Reid because she was biting in her comments and observations and had an ‘I don’t care’ attitude. Along with her role in Years and Years Reid has had a stellar 2019. Sacofsky and Spencer had juicy roles as they acted ‘politely bitchy’ to each other, and they potentially long careers ahead of them.
Williams was the star of the show, and she did perfectly well as a prim and proper regency woman. Williams was a beautiful woman and had a unique look compared to the other women in the town because she has a more olive skin tone and a notable chin dimple. The writers were trying to make Charlotte an Elizabeth Bennett type by being a strong, opinionated woman. But, the first half of the season, the character came across as a Mary Sue, someone who could barely do any wrong.
Charlotte’s role was to act as the audience’s surrogate. She was the eyes into this world because she had a settled upbringing living on a farm. Sanditon is a new experience, and she’s excited about the town and falls in love with it, but others, like her friend Georgiana, has been exposed to London, and she sees it as nothing more than a backwater. I note I was surprised to hear Crystal Clarke speak with an American accent when promoting the show because I thought she was English.
Turlough Convery and Alexandra Roach offered comic relief as the younger Parker siblings. Convery looked and acted like a British version of Josh Gad, being friendly if an enthusiastic man. While Roach played a hypochondriac, who was overprotective of her brother. They made for a great double act, especially in episode four, where they have a day on the beach. Sadly, Adrian Scarborough didn’t fare so well because his role was a comedy German.
The ending of Sanditon has upset Austen fans because it goes against convention. The ending did bring some realism to the show, and there was a logical train of thought that dictated the characters’ actions. The showrunners were properly hoping for a second season to be commissioned.
Although the darker material that was on display, Sanditon was a reasonably safe period-drama that the costumes, Georgian buildings, and English restraint. It was a show made just for fans of the genre.