Friday, April 12, 2024

Anne Wants to Give you Feels

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Back in the bad old days of television, shows tended to be made for a limited, domestic market. If it was successful enough, then maybe the channel distributing it would find some other channels in other markets to buy the show. Such was the way that people all over the world felt sophisticated watching BBC costume dramas, and I got to watch Friends dubbed into Polish at my grandpa’s house in Wrocław months (if not years) after they were originally produced and broadcast.

These days, though, these kinds of arrangements are little more than an annoyance to fans of foreign shows. You can find episodes of almost anything in under ten minutes if you know where to look, so take it with the appropriate caveats when I brag that, while everyone else has to wait until May 18 for Anne to come out on Netflix, we Canadians can watch it on CBC every Sunday. (If we’re willing to sit through endless ads for P.E.I. Tourism…)

The Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery is not only a cultural icon that is recognizably Canadian all over the world, it’s also kinda a huge money maker, especially for the tiny little province of Prince Edward Island. That poor little farm house in Cavendish is drowned under a sea of tourists every year, and a musical play based on the book in Charlottetown has the longest ever run for an annual musical.

A lot of this popularity is due to the international success of the 1985 CBC series Anne of Green Gables, which starred Megan Follows in what is generally considered to be a definitive performance. Indeed, on a recent episode of The Fandomentalist, Gretchen, Kylie, and I unanimously agreed that the very idea of a new series based on these books was dumb, because Megan Follows is Anne, and you can’t improve on perfection. Surely this was just another one of those desperate attempts to tap into viewer nostalgia.

Well, isn’t my face red, because after watching just the 90 minute pilot of the new series, I can tell you: not only does this new version of the story justify itself, it may actually turn out the be better. To make it even worse, the primary reason I think so is, wait for it, the cast. Yes, little Amybeth McNulty might just prove to be more Anne than Megan Follows.

I know.

None of this is particularly Follows’s fault. For one this, she was a good three or four years older than McNulty is when she filmed her series, and Anne’s flourished, eloquent precociousness is a much better fit for a younger girl. By the time you get to be sixteen, calling a pond “The Lake of Shining Waters” might be more emotionally immature than clever. And, probably to somewhat counteract this, Follows’s Anne is actually quite restrained. Unless she’s having a temper tantrum, she speaks softly and carries herself gracefully.

McNulty’s Anne is a force of nature. When she is happy, she is happy with her entire body. When she’s angry or devastated, there is nothing on the screen by her raw emotion. I believe that her Anne is traumatized orphan who loves to read and wants a better life.

Because, did you realize that Anne Shirley is a traumatized orphan? I’m not entirely sure I did before now. This series made damn sure I wouldn’t miss that fact. The first episode is structured around a series of triggering experience that Anne has as she’s going through the emotional upheaval of thinking she’s going to be adopted, then thinking she’s going to be rejected, then maybe being able to stay, then being rejected again…

God, now that I say it like that, Anne Shirley’s had a horrible childhood and this entire ordeal must have been hell on earth for her. I swear when I watched Megan Follows go through the whole thing it was funny and cute. But, as you can probably guess, the tone of this series is quite a bit… I hesitate to say “darker,” but it’s certainly more serious.

This makes sense, in a way. I’m quite sure that this was intended to be a whimsical tale, but the abuse that Anne suffered before she came to Green Gables is canonical, even if Montgomery in 1908 and television in 1985 would never have explored it this way. I would argue that our current cultural conversation would see anything less as a little insulting, to both the viewer and the character. It’s as though, while the 1985 series harken back to simpler times in rural Canada, this new one is harkening back to the days of child labour and social stratification. It’s more Alice Munro’s Southern Ontario Gothic than Road to Avonlea.

On the other hand, it does gives me pause. A “dark and gritty” Anne of Green Gables? It will be a fine line between maturity and grimdark for the duration of the series, I suspect.

The direction certainly takes itself seriously. So much so that I occasionally wondered if this wasn’t a production of Wuthering Hights. There’s a lot of epic landscape shots, and extreme close-ups with faded dialogue, and a theme song by the Tragically Hip. But I’m not entirely sure that’s a bad thing either; it feels as though it matches well with Anne’s dramatic and romantic personality.

I suppose the question we have to ask about this tone, which is clearly not the original intent of the source material, is: has this text taken on a life of its own enough that challenging it in this way can actually be meaningful, beyond just being edgy? Is this Wide Sargasso Sea, or is it Man of Steel?

The rest of the main cast is more than McNulty’s equal. Geraldine James as Marilla Cuthbert is the perfect mix of compassion and repression, and R. H. Thomson as Matthew Cuthbert is just so Canadian. Seriously, I have a neighbour across the street who is exactly like him. He always votes Conservative.

The only performances I’m not gushing about are the three Barrys. The parents seem like they’re trying a little too hard to be stiff and pretentious, and the young actor playing Diana is… fine. There’s nothing wrong with her except the fact that she has to play against AmyBeth McNulty. I suppose only time will tell how this turns out.

I’m very excited to catch up on the episodes that have already aired, and plan to make this show a regular Sunday night date for the next five weeks. Anne has the potential to be a thoughtful and optimistic series that takes the implications of its title character’s story seriously, or it could descend into a pretty nothing. 

I hope for the sake of the Maritimes tourism industry, that it’s the former.

Images courtesy of CBC

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