Did we like it?
Andrew Davies once again enacts the role of period adaptation alchemist; boiling down the intricate maze of internalised repressed feminine yearning into a fantastically gripping and moving piece of television drama adorned by an equally fantastic cast.
What was good about it?
• As with every adaptation of literature to screen, the internal monologue is torn away with same perfunctory fashion as the furniture being stripped out of a condemned house. Davies, of course, has long ago realised the futility of striving to retain this element of literature and instead ingeniously replaces the inner turmoil of the characters with pained glances and silences so awkward they could stow away on the SS Blind Date.
• Davies also quickly divides up the cast into heroes and villains. This was apparent in the opening scene as the predatory Willoughby (Dominic Cooper), who later charms his way into the naïve affections of Marianne Dashwood (Charity Wakefield), is seen seducing and subsequently discarding a young woman before riding off into the Devonshire countryside. This strips away the conflict of whom the viewer should cheer on in the dispute over Marianne’s hand in marriage as the gloomier Colonel Brandon (David Morrissey) is far more chivalrous (he even makes you oblivious to the fact that Marianne is 17 and has her own sharp, intelligent mind rather than just a pretty bauble to be squabbled over by haughty noblemen).
• But it is the conniving Aunt Fanny (the superb Claire Skinner) who is the most blatantly malicious in this first episode. When not breaking the feeble will of her weak husband Sir John Dashwood (Mark Gatiss) to coerce him into evicting his step mother and half-sisters from Norwood following the death of his father, she is leering at the grieving Mary (Janet McTeer) or her daughters undermining the blossoming relationship between her impulsive brother Edward (the ever impressive Dan Stevens) and Elinor Dashwood (Hattie Morahan).
• Also worth a mention is Lucy Boynton as Margaret who aptly captures the impudent stroppiness of a 10-year-old. When she’s told that Aunt Fanny will be moving into their home she retorts, “If she comes to live here I might poison her!” And when Aunt Fanny patronises the sisters about their eviction to a cottage in Devon, she snarls, “Then you should live there, Aunt Fanny, and we shall stay at Norwood!”
• While the scenery is orchestrated so it almost assumes a role in the narrative. Norwood, the Dashwoods’ stately home had an ashen, desolate expression and the black clad mourners for Lord Dashwood being spat out like rotten teeth from a quivering maw. The tempestuous Devonshire (yes, we know it’s Devon but everyone referred to it as Devonshire) coastline with foaming waves crashing frustratedly ashore mirroring little Margaret’s directionless infantile fury, Marianne’s annoyance at everyone corralling her into marriage with Colonel Brandon and Elinor’s pining for the distant Edward.
• The moment when Edward, probably under oppressive instruction from the overbearing Fanny, declares that he “values” the “friendship” of Elinor when it is clear there is a greater fondness between the pair.
What was bad about it?
• While the central themes of love and courtship still resonate today, other elements of the tale have inevitably palled with the passing of this polite, discriminatory era. While the casting out of the Dashwood sisters into relative poverty elicits the viewer sympathy, on closer inspection it’s more difficult to pity any family who, believing themselves down on their luck, bemoan, “We shall probably need only two servants.”
• And the way in which the sole purpose of feminine existence in this era seems to be to find a husband to ensure that their family is kept in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed is risible – although it would be impossible to extract from the story – as even Marianne’s twin interests of the piano and poetry are merely devices she uses to spin a web about the devious Willoughby and the bashful Brandon.
• The only fault in clearing away much of the extraneous detail of the novel to focus on the core narrative is that it ends up solely following the Dashwood sisters’ mission to find a husband, meaning Sir John (Mark Williams) and Mary resemble haranguing telesales operators for a persistent internet dating firm.