Saturday, August 19, 2017

Anne With an E: Anne Shirley Cuthbert's Glorious Return

I never read Anne of Green Gables as a child. I read it when I was 21 years old, right after I had finished wading through the Twilight saga. Reading L.M. Montgomery's evocative, miraculous prose, and reveling in the classic story of this young orphan girl who had more grit and determination in her little finger than any of the female characters I had been reading about lately, was the most refreshing experience of my life. I fell deeply and irrevocably in love with Anne, and now, I have fallen hopelessly in love with Moira Walley-Beckett's TV adaptation of the books, Anne With an E.

You may have heard that this is a grittier version of the tale. And that is true. No one is singing "The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow" a la other red-headed orphan girls. Instead of solely making this a pretty story about an orphan who moves to beautiful Prince Edward Island, gets adopted, and goes on to live a happy life, the show chooses to explore the backstory of these characters and lend them a depth that makes you fall in love with them even more. By focusing on Anne's past, where she faced abuse from foster parents who were only interested in treating her like a nanny for their children, we are able to further admire her resilience and relentless optimism. By learning more about Marilla and Matthew's romantic disappointments, we can better understand their deep bond of sibling unity and their willingness to pour all their love onto this peculiar little girl. I was initially terrified of Geraldine James' portrayal of Aunt Marilla, bemoaning her seeming cold-heartedness and desire to send Anne back to the orphanage when it turned out she was a girl instead of a boy. But as the season progressed, she quickly became my favorite character (after Anne, of course), because underneath that stony facade lies a heart of pure gold.

I won't detail every plot point of the first season because you need to relish the heartbreakingly few seven episodes and watch them unfold naturally. However, the best episode (in my oh-so humble opinion) is Episode 5, i.e. the Period Episode. You rarely see girls getting their periods on TV or in classic literature, but watching Anne freak out and Marilla calming her down might be the most entertaining and educational moment in recent TV history. Following that, watching Matthew's uncomfortable male response is immensely delightful, as is the subsequent conversation between Marilla and her best friend Rachel as they discuss the joys of being post-menopausal. This episode keeps giving and giving: there's the reaction of Anne's friends at school, her trepidation as she gets called up in front of the class and worries that her dress might be stained (ladies, we all remember that feeling, right?), and then, of course, the ultimate resolution of the whole saga, where Anne realizes that while this means she is getting older, it doesn't mean it's the end of the world.

Every actor in Anne With an E is impeccably cast, none more so than Amybeth McNulty. With her beaming smile, bright-red pigtails, freckled face, and joyous declamation of grandiose words, she is the perfect Anne, capable of turning on a dime from being moody to magical. She takes Anne's eccentric dialogue and makes it perfectly plausible, and watching the dramatic conversations between her and her best friend, Diana, or her scrappy arguments with Gilbert Blythe, transported me back to that bipolar time in childhood, when everything seems so urgent and immediate, and every event either sends you into transports of delight or abject misery.

In addition, this is also a gorgeous piece of television. Every set is brimming with historically accurate details and the costumes are embellished with little touches that lend authenticity and spark to every single character. The scenery is gasp-inducing, and while Anne always seems so hyperbolic, even you cannot disagree with her when she first enters Green Gables and is immediately enchanted by the indescribably magnificent landscape. The house oozes a tangible comfort and I wanted nothing more than to wrap myself up in a shawl and have a cup of tea with Marilla. And the soundtrack is pitch perfect as well, a wonderful complement to every second of the series. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention the wonderful opening title sequence, set to the Tragically Hip's Ahead By a Century. It is an artistic wonderland that immediately tells you what to expect from our plucky and classically Canadian heroine.

Perhaps the best clue that Anne With an E is an excellent adaptation is that the minute you're done watching it, you'll want to re-read the books. It is a loving, cinematically gorgeous ode to a literary heroine beloved by generations of girls and women. In the hands of Moira Walley-Beckett (who previously wrote the best episodes of Breaking Bad and therefore has an impeccable TV pedigree), Anne has found the right person to tell her story. Most importantly, Walley-Beckett is Canadian, so she understands that this is not only an important story for women and girls, but an important story for an entire nation. She can rest easy; she has done us all proud.

I originally posted this article on Wellesley Underground where I am the new WU Reviews editor. If you enjoy my posts here, I highly recommend you read the WU Reviews series to get some wonderfully diverse viewpoints on the latest TV, literature, and cinema!

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