Saturday, 12 October 2019

A review of Sanditon: My Thoughts on The Acting and Production

If you were to ask me what my all-time favourite TV series is I would not even need to think about it. Without a shadow of a doubt, it is Andrew Davies' 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. I can watch it over and over again because the acting and production is just so fantastic. So, when I heard last March, that Andrew Davies' latest adaptation of an Austen story was being filmed, I could not wait to see what was in store.

Okay, confession time, I am a Jane Austen fan but I never knew about Sanditon. I had no idea it was an unfinished novel of Austen's. I could not even tell you what it was about until it lit up my TV screens recently. I did not want to research it before I watched it as this was a unique opportunity to watch an Austen drama without knowing the plot. I had no doubt it would be good. Davies always creates wonderful TV and when it comes to Austen he is the master. I would like to think that if Jane Austen had been reincarnated it would be as another woman, but sometimes I wonder has Austen come to life again as Andrew Davies? Of course I jest, but he seems to know her mind inside and out!

Most of Austen's novels are not named after where they are set, but this one is. Sanditon is the name the of the seaside resort, that we are introduced to through the eyes of our heroine Miss Charlotte Heywood. The screenplay has been produced so that Sanditon becomes a character in itself. We get to know Sanditon through our main female protagonist. She is plucked from her humble farm life by an enthusiastic Mr Tom Parker, the visionary behind turning Sanditon into a fabulous, glamorous and well-to-do destination resort. Tom Parker is wonderfully embodied by Kris Marshall who brings delight and passion to his character while showing an underbelly of insecurity. Marshall's comic timing, with the character's whimsy and wonder, allows the viewer to experience his passion and feel his failings. Tom Parker's likeability allows the audience to believe that Miss Heywood's parents could allow her to go off with strangers to a new place. However, in contradiction to the time period or other Austen novels, there is no intention that she should find herself a husband in Sanditon, but her father leaves her with a few words of caution about her destination. Quite rightly so, as maybe she is too innocent to see the dangers for herself, but her self-confidence, however, gives her a strength to not fall foul to all the manipulation that may be at play. Like Heywood, we as the viewer, have never come across an Austen town quite like this. The characters are edgy and there is more grit than we are used to. Austen always has undertones but this is a little closer to the mark and yet does not seem out of place. The seaside brings a bit of wildness and a little less formality that gives the characters more chance to break from societal demands. Through the setting, in particular, we can see our female characters have more to them then just relying on marriage to secure their futures.

There are many characters in this story and produced badly it could become too fragmented. Luckily this is not the case, Charlotte Heywood may be the lynchpin to the story, but we do care enough about other characters predicaments to indulge in their storylines that become separate from our heroine, which is something that is not often present in Austen's work. In her writing, usually, the main female and her male romantic interest are fully formed people with multiple characteristics and everybody else around them presenting as rather two dimensional. This is simply not the case in this Austen adaptation. It is the complexity of many of the characters in Sanditon that makes it feel more like an ensemble piece.

Quote from Radio Times Interview
Nevertheless Rose Williams, who plays Charlotte, brightly shines among her eminent colleagues. Williams is not new to our screens but will be unheard of to many of the audience. She is acting with some very experienced actors so could easily be overshone by them. However, she embodies her character to the core. No matter how much you are drawn into the other storylines, as soon as she is back on the screen you just want to follow her story. Miss Heywood is a young woman with little experience of anything outside of rural life. It would be easy for an actress to play this character as though she were just a naive girl, with wide eyes making ignorant remarks, but I do not think we can attribute these qualities to her. Williams manages to show us Charlotte's innocence alongside a certainty of knowing who she is and claiming her independence. She is intelligent and although she lacks experience of the world around her, she is not afraid to learn. She always owns her opinions, and mistakes, no matter who or what she comes up against. She is very quick to set the record straight that is not in want of a husband and we, as the audience, fully believe her and move on to examine her other qualities and the intrigue into where her story might lead. Of course, she is confronted with the inevitable rich, handsome gentleman, Mr Sidney Parker, who cannot help but try to make her feel small. However, like Bennett and Darcey in Pride and Prejudice, they are inexplicably drawn to one another. Parker and Heywood's interactions are compelling and leave us desperate to see them together more.

 They are drawn together like a magnet. Sidney is performed by Theo James who gives a stellar performance as the arrogant and mysterious gentleman who challenges Charlotte. It would be easy for his character to just be seen as rude and demeaning, however, we also see that perhaps there is another side to him. While James cleverly portrays the character's rudeness though his tone and manner towards his co-star’s character, his eyes tell us a different story. James invites the audience in to see that there is something deeper going on for his character. Through his eyes we can see a conflict between what he is saying and what his true emotions are, perhaps alluding to something in his past that is informing his present in a way he wishes it would not. James' subtle contradiction between his words and his inner thoughts clearly shows his complexity of feelings and hints to us that Sidney and Charlotte may become more than just two people who irritate each other? The question is, do we want the predictable romance to happen between the characters? Charlotte has no pressure to marry and we are presented with another possible love interest for her. Unlike other Austen novels, the second suitor Young Stringer is brilliantly, earnestly and honestly played by Leo Suter, is not absurd or horrific but a lovely and ambitious man who is closer to Charlotte in station. In some episodes, I could not decide which male actor would make the best romantic partner for her as Suter's portrayal of his characters heart on sleeve feelings for Charlotte were glorious to watch. Charlotte's lightness, kindness, outspokenness and intelligence are definitely a draw to both men in different ways. She compliments one and challenges another. Or, perhaps, as the feminist in me would like, she will end up with neither?

The cast as a whole really do excel and are very generous actors. By which I mean, they play their characters in earnest, even our more comedic and evil characters add to the charm of Sanditon beautifully. The step-brother and sister duo played by Jack Fox and Charlotte Spencer reminds me of the siblings Mary and Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park. Both of these sets are evil, shallow, manipulative but beautiful and charming. However, Davies has developed the Denham duo to become deeper than initial impressions. Fox and Spencer leap on this scripting opportunity and ask the audience to see a different side to them. Despite their manipulations, especially Esther Denham, their depth of character starts to unravel. Spencer brings a sense of sadness and desperation to her character. The director uses this to lead the audience away from the stereotypical evil nature we expect to see within this story format. It is safe to say that Spencer gives fantastic characterisation for others to bounce off in this production, but so do the rest of the cast. They all give a lot to their fellow actors allowing Sanditon to really dazzle as a period drama. No one person steals the show completely. It is well cast. However, I would be remiss not to mention Rose Williams one more time. Her characterisation of Miss Heywood is the key to us enjoying and engaging with this story. Played too naive, we would find her irritating and unable to see the other characters in their true lights. Her manner and brilliant facial expressions reflect her confusion at the responses and situations thrown at her, allow the viewer to care and fully engage in the story. Williams masterly combines Charlotte's inner conflict of natural confidence versus her inexperience of the wider world, to give us an Austen heroine that speaks to us in the twenty-first century. She is the kind of female character we need to bee seeing more of and Rose Williams brings Austen's and Davies' words to life quite wonderfully.

1 comment :

  1. I would have liked another couple of episodes to sort out the very un-Austen like ending. I loved it all but was left wanting at the end, even though, in my heart, I feel the ending was deliberately written to avoid the usual Austen cliche endings.


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