“I like imagining more than remembering,” says Anne in the opening episode of new TV version of Anne of Green Gables. It soon becomes apparent why, as the seven-part adaptation unveils the unhappy memories that belong to our heroine’s childhood. An orphan with a bleak backstory, she ultimately finds solace with the adopted brother-and-sister household of Marilla (Geraldine James) and Matthew Cuthbert (R.H. Thomson). The only problem? They were expecting a boy.
If fans of L.M. Montgomery’s novel are already shaking their heads at the series’ excavation of this classic literary figure’s traumatic past, which is only briefly alluded to in the original text, they will no doubt bristle at the other changes that have been made. Breaking Bad writer Moira Walley-Beckett doesn’t skimp on the darkness, as she brings a shadowy edge to proceedings. Anne finds herself bullied at school, even rejected by the Cuthberts at first, prompting her to flee back to the train station in Episode 2. Marilla and Matthew, meanwhile, are also not spared their own slice of sadness, as the firm-but-affectionate sister finds herself embraced then snubbed by more well-off mothers in the towns, while Matthew has a long-lost love (Brenda Bazinet) working in the local clothes shop and a family bereavement to carry on his shoulders.
But changes are inevitable when a story changes mediums, particularly when it has already been adapted several times before – there will be many whose touchstone for Anne’s winning story is the 1980s TV show. 30 years on, though, times have moved on, and audience tastes have too. A co-production between the Canadian Broadcasting Company and Netflix, this new take on the world’s most talkative redhead is clearly aiming for a second season, introducing a new twist come the finale that leaves even more darkness looming on the horizon. As a result, there’s a sense that, rather than distort the familiar story, Anne with an E (as this show is delightfully titled) is merely filling in the blanks between paragraphs and chapters, adding new shades and tints to colour in the now-extended pages.
The result is a bracing, endearing, absorbing piece of television, which swoons from sadness to childlike glee with an immediacy that could easily be lacking from this 19th century tale of a girl growing up on Prince Edward Island. Playing out like a companion piece to Andrea Arnold’s immersive Wuthering Heights or the BBC’s recent, shadowy Great Expectations, it’s period drama that feels wonderfully modern and urgently contemporary.
At times, the screenplay goes too far in highlighting its relevance to 2017, introducing a community priest with a surprisingly sexist view of female education and turning romantic interest Gilbert (Lucas Jade Zumann) into a downbeat character in his own right. But the cast ensure that things never over-balance into overdone melodrama. Geraldine James is perfect as Marilla, starting off stern and softening, as she grows to care for her outspoken ward, while R.H. Thomson is instantly loveable as the quiet, reticent farmer, never letting his potential bond with Brenda Bazinet’s shop owner overshadow the most important relationship in his life: his heartfelt connection with Anne.
In the lead, Amybeth McNulty is a revelation, the kind of child actor who never feels like they’re acting, even as she has to navigate the fraught line between repressed trauma, its lingering traces and the astonishment of an orphan suddenly given a loving home in a beautiful piece of countrywide. McNulty’s Anne brims with wide-eyed wonder, her enthusiasm bubbling over into torrents of verbal happiness, renaming the cherry tree path leading to the house “The White Way of Delight” and serving up words such as “enrapture” and “glorious” with unabashed joy. When told things are none of her business, she explodes with an eagerness to learn: “But I’m bursting with curiosity!”
It’s a charismatic, infectious performance, one that tips the show into hopeful, optimistic territory every time it threatens to wallow in melancholy, her ever-shifting facial expressions moving from tears to smiles in the blink of an eye.
And how fitting for Anne to be the one to propel the show to its moving heights of success. A rousingly feminist story of a young woman making her way in the world despite the constant setbacks she faces, this is a story of tiny victories and the gargantuan pleasure they can bring.
As a result, even the smallest thing can feel like a major slight: when Marilla’s friend, Rachel, insults her appearance, she rails in a tirade of hurt feelings that feels entirely genuine, even though it might pale in comparison to her past abuse. Watching her fight back with her own insults, meanwhile, is doubly delightful – trebly so, as we see Marilla’s attempts not to smile as it happens. With fleshed-out parents and a more complex emotional backdrop for Anne to stand out against, every scene carries that same weight and potential to lift your spirits, and the show doesn’t skimp on those either: in addition to helping Minnie May using her medical knowledge, she briefly puts her scientific know-how to use when a nearby building catches on fire.
The usual milestones are all present and correct, from the slate-to-the-face classroom encounter to the wonderfully funny currant wine tea party, but there’s an epic, grander scale to events, which, thanks to McNulty’s performance, finds its extremes less in the desire to make Green Gables like Breaking Bad and more in Anne’s heightened outlook on the world. This is a tale that prefers to imagine than remember, and it’s all the better for it. As a result, there’s always a silver lining to every cloud, a live-life-with-no-regrets resilience that remains uniquely recognisable and undeniably heart-warming. “People laugh at me because I use big words,” says Anne, at one point. “But if you have big ideas, you have to use big words to express them, don’t you?” Indubitably.
Anne with an E: Season 1 and 2 is available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.
Photo: Caitlin Cronenberg/Netflix