PBS’ adaptation of Jane Austen’s final, unfinished novel is a pretty but mostly overstuffed soap opera.
It is a truth, etc., that people love a Jane Austen adaptation. We love them as period pieces. We love them modernized. We love them with zombies and as murder mysteries. Sanditon is here to see if we love them when they’re a little bit naughty (read: people have sex in this!). Sanditon is based upon an unfinished 1817 novel by Jane Austen, who completed eleven chapters before ceasing due to the illness that would kill her in July of that year. Sanditon the novel has been finished in various versions by several authors, and the bulk of this ITV/PBS production is written by Andrew Davies, who previously adapted the 1995 adaptation Pride and Prejudice and 2002’s Tipping the Velvet, among others. Only the first episode or so is drawn from the source material, the rest is pure Davies, sex and scandal and wet men emerging from bodies of water.
Sweet and spunky Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) meets World’s Nicest Couple Tom and Mary Parker (Kris Marshall and Kate Ashfield) after Tom is injured in a carriage accident near her parents’ house. When the Parkers return to their hometown of Sanditon, a charming seaside town that Tom hopes to turn into a resort destination, they bring an eager Charlotte along with them. Sanditon has numerous attractions in progress, but not very many (other than an annual cricket match and some bathing machines) in play.
Tom, good-hearted and ambitious, lacks a certain degree of business acumen or common sense. Whether it’s trying to plan a regatta or hiring a doctor to serve up tonics and cures for the incumbent visitors, Tom spends most of the series leaving everyone in the dark. What will happen to him and his family if he loses it all? It’s hard to say, beyond references to being ruined and some tension with the local workmen. There’s never a real reason to be too worried about the Parkers, and there should be.
Aiding him in his resort endeavor is town nobility Lady Denham (Anne Reid), a sharp-tongued old woman with a massive fortune and the obligatory clutch of poor relations. In Lady Denham’s case, these relations include her ward Clara (Lily Sacofsky), a deceptively retiring young lady with a dark past, and niece and nephew, Esther and Sir Edward (Charlotte Spencer and Jack Fox). Esther and Edward are step-siblings, we’re assured, just so that no one is too unsettled by their smoldering glances, insistent need to touch each other, and their very close talking. Surprise! It’s exactly what you think it is. It is, though, the relationship that grows and changes the most throughout, especially in the latter half when its manipulative undercurrents are revealed.
The character collective is completed by three Parker siblings: hypochondriacs Arthur (Turlough Convery) and Diana (Alexandra Roach), and Byronic ideal Sidney (Theo James). There’s also Parker-adjacent Miss Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke), a biracial heiress from Antigua who is Sidney’s ward (and Jane Austen’s first black character); and Young Isaac Stringer (Leo Suter), the foreman of Tom’s construction project and a possible contender for Charlotte’s affections.
Sanditon is packed with plots: Lady Denham’s heirs battling to be in her will; Miss Lambe’s disdain for English society and the racist indignities she endures; Arthur and Diana’s kooky adventures with medicine, and Young Springer’s clashes with his father, just to name a few. The big audience draw, however, is clearly the relationship between Charlotte and Sidney, watching as these two comely individuals work past their first impressions and realize they’re made for each other. This is, unfortunately, where Sanditon feels flat.
James’ Sidney is as a hundred Regency romance novel heroes before him: drinking, boxing, smoking in front of ladies, lounging around sans cravat, and, since this is an Andrew Davies production, accidentally encountering Charlotte as he emerges from the sea naked after a swim. He’s at times less of a character than he is a very filled out wishlist. Sidney and Charlotte’s relationship is so initially antagonistic that every time Charlotte acts upon her best intentions and he responds coldly (once flat-out yelling at her in the street) you start to wish she’d just ignore him entirely and go for another walk with Young Stringer. There isn’t enough growth between them, they’re bonded by a tragic situation or two but never really seem to have enough to back up what we’re told is love. The pair have great physical chemistry (there’s a dance sequence that displays this in spades), but maybe more time could have been spent with our lovers and less on Arthur Takes A Walk.
Only the first episode or so is drawn from the source material, the rest is pure Davies, sex and scandal and wet men emerging from bodies of water.
Ultimately, Sanditon tries to do too much. The domestic drama and humor that color the first half takes a rapid turn by Episode 5 when most of the plotlines start to reach a head and Sidney is suddenly leaping between carriages. Arthur and Diana, who were amusing spots of light in the beginning, are shelved for long periods, and after an extremely traumatic subplot Miss Lambe just hovers around for the rest of the show. And then there’s the sex, that which is supposed to (along with Georgiana’s racially-tinged storylines) set this adaptation apart from other Austens.
Sanditon’s approach to sex paints it the past-time of villains (married couples simply smile lovingly at each other). The good girls and boys of the seaside exchange chaste kisses and longing glances, while the baddies have meaningless lusty encounters. Every one of the show’s love stories is wrong in some way, whether it’s a forbidden romance with a possible fortune hunter or a forbidden romance because, y’know, your parents were married to each other, and it all starts to become a bit much. The most refreshing relationship is Arthur and Miss Lambe, whom Arthur refers to as his pal. Just a pair of pals! More friendships, please!
Unfortunately, Sanditon ends with plenty of loose ends and characters in the wind, a set up for a season 2 that will not materialize, as the series was canceled by ITV prior to its American debut. There’s been a substantial amount of outrage about how the show ended, which I won’t spoil here, but anyone settling in to enjoy the series should be prepared to take to Twitter when it’s done, for good or for ill.
Sanditon premieres Sunday, January 12th on PBS.