To fully understand PBS’s eagerly awaited new adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished last novel Sanditon, all you need to do is remember Colin Firth rising out of the pond with his clinging white shirt in the 1995 BBC miniseries of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Sanditon, which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on PBS, has precisely that same attitude toward Austen’s work. It includes scenes and situations she never would have dreamed about writing, yet on the whole it remains faithful to the themes, rhythms and lessons she delivered with timeless charm.
The resemblance isn’t surprising, since this Sanditon was adapted by Andrew Davies, who also adapted the P&P miniseries. What he did with the earlier series, updating some themes, visuals and conversations, he does more extensively here — since, unlike with P&P, we don’t have Austen’s own complete work as a blueprint.
She had finished only the early part of Sanditon before she became too ill to continue, and Austen fans won’t have too much trouble figuring out where Austen left off and Davies picks it up.
If it’s noticeable, though, it’s not entirely ominous.
For starters and perhaps most essential of all in the Austen world, Sanditon has a delightful female lead in Charlotte Heywood, played by Rose Williams.
Charlotte is a country girl taken away and temporarily taken in by Mr. and Mrs. Tom Parker (Kris Marshall and Alexandra Roach), a cheerful and socially prominent couple who are in the process of developing a large, ambitious seaside resort called, yes, Sanditon.
They don’t have the resources to do it on their own, however, so Tom Parker has been courting the rich and cranky dowager Lady Denham (Anne Reid). While she has agreed to underwrite much of the cost, Tom must do a continuous tap dance to keep her pacified about its lagging construction pace and his sometimes overly optimistic projections about its instant appeal.
Accordingly, Tom also keeps nagging his dashing, successful, worldly, impatient and somewhat mysterious brother Sidney (Theo James) to help him secure further financial backing.
Sidney would just as soon distance himself from the whole tenuous deal, but he has an additional task. He is the guardian for Miss Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke), an heiress relocated from the Caribbean to Britain essentially to wait out the two years before she turns 21 and inherits a huge fortune.
Being a teenager, Miss Lambe doesn’t want to wait for anything, though at the moment she’s less interested in the money than in her boyfriend Otis Molyneux (Jyuddah Jaymes), with whom she wants to run away so they can marry.
She needs Sidney’s approval for that sort of thing, though, and he has no intention of giving it, seeing Otis as a golddigger from whom Miss Lambe must be protected in spite of herself.
While Miss Lambe hates everything about Britain, including the weather, she strikes up a friendship with Charlotte. Charlotte is soon helping her make surreptitious contact with Otis, which is dicier than it sounds because Charlotte is simultaneously striking up an acquaintance with Sidney herself.
Meanwhile, a fistful of Lady Denham’s lazy, conniving relatives are jockeying to get in line for her estate, or other resources she can help provide. This includes the brother and sister Edward Denham (Jack Fox) and Esther (Charlotte Spencer).
Edward and Charlotte were part of the story Austen began. Where they go, the viewer should know, is almost certainly not where Austen — who created another scheming brother and sister in Mansfield Park — planned to take them.
Sanditon looks Austenian. It has the sweeping prospects of the British countryside and sea. It has bustling cities, tall tophats, grand balls with dancing and long Empire-waist dresses.
It also tackles a subject of immediate significance in Austen’s time: the burgeoning business of high-end seaside resorts for the well-to-do. This dovetails nicely with Austen’s ongoing themes of money and class and the ways in which they do and do not intersect.
That said, it has a measurable number of details, including some of the language, that doesn’t have the precise ring of Austen. Her hard-core fans will doubtless have some quibbles and some good points.
In the end, though, Davies gives us a good story, lovely to look at and anchored by an endearing performance from Williams. Absent a good Ouija board, alas, we will never know precisely how Jane would have done it.