Frock Flicks note: This is a guest post by our friend Yosa Addiss. At 6 years old, she informed her mother that her selection of dress-up clothes was woefully inadequate. Yosa has been building a suitable collection ever since. After pursuing a degree in costume design, she created one of the first websites for custom-made costume gowns. Yosa has moved on to a career in marketing but remains a lover of theatre and film and lifelong fan of historical costume. Find her at yosa.com.
Welcome to my oh-so-spoilery review of Sanditon (2019), episode 1.
This miniseries is based on Jane Austen’s unfinished final novel, as completed by Andrew Davies. Austen completed 11 chapters before her death in 1817. I’ll base the clothing comparisons on clothing in the 1800 to 1817 range, with the potential for older characters to have formalwear from earlier.
The production has clearly been “updated for modern audiences” by the way of adding in racy sex plots. Oh yes, they go there. If you expect it will be suitable for all audiences, you might well find yourself cringing. You’ve been warned!
We first meet our intrepid adventuress Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) wielding a very large gun to try to kill a very small rabbit. She looks very modern with a lack of hairpins — I can only think her hair must be getting into her eyes like crazy.
Charlotte and her family (11 siblings who aren’t mentioned again until episode 8) help out the couple who have tumbled from their carriage, and they invite her to visit with them in Sanditon. It is a bit awkward as a meet-cute, but her hosts turn out to be lovely people, and it is a rare chance for a country girl to go meet suitable bachelors to marry up with, right? Right.
The Parkers look thoroughly well to do and thoroughly disheveled. I especially like her hat — it’s always a bold choice to wear a white hat. She is very nicely dressed in a lovely traveling ensemble that shows the correct high neckline for day. Her hair isn’t in ringlets, as is the style, but one token ringlet is seen very often in the series as a nod to the historic fashion.
He is wearing very nice layers, and his shirt collar is done up nicely. Only quibble is that his overcoat is clearly too wide at the shoulders. But, whatevs.
For comparison, here is a walking dress sketch from 1817:
Note the hair is up, tight curls at the hairline, and a brim to shade the face. One of the guiding features of this era of women’s clothing is the attention to the neck. High blouses for daytime with incredibly dainty lace, ruffles of the lightest fabrics, etc. Her neck may be bared for evening, showing off her collarbone, to the nape of her neck to advantage. It is my opinion that wearing hair down and long would not only have been seen as improper, but also conceal details in the clothing and person that were meant to be the most attractive.
Charlotte is then transported to Sanditon, with her best wardrobe, and introduced into society. The wealthy dowager trope is fully in play here, with a wonderful performance of Anne Reid as Lady Denham.
Lady Denham is in a lovely stripe gown in blacks and white. Interesting is the lace around the neckline and at the sleeves that is black — my guess is that the dress was created for another production and the black lace replaced white lace to make it look more like a mourning gown. Neckline lace like this is a stretch, as is the (added?) panel at center front. Full points given for the front closure on the gown though — no back-lacing!
The real accuracy stretch is the date of the style. Lady Denham wears quite a few dresses like this throughout the series, in a style that was the peak of fashion around 1770. That is 48 years prior to our story. 10 years earlier in style on an older character? Totally! 20 years? Sure, why not. 48 years? On the wealthiest person in town? I just can’t. She is not Miss Havisham. I also can’t with her modern driving gloves.
Later in the episode, she is in another 1770s gown, this time the rental fit so badly that it is off-the-shoulder for some reason. Still, the fabric is absolutely lovely, and clear effort was made to get the 1770s right. In 1817. Not quite sure why she has “sweet Disney grandmother” hair, but it is poofy and up, so it gets a pass. She looks so charming here that she practically glows.
On the interiors — the houses in Sanditon are quite dark with long dark curtains. I am very impressed by the lighting of the scenes with that limitation. The light highlights each character, and any artificial light added is subtle, which is tough. Three cheers to the professionals who made the interior shots work, it is impressive.
Similarly, I am fascinated by the walls in the Parker’s house. I end up staring at the walls. The production designers have clearly noted the style of the time to have many small pictures on the wall — paintings, etchings watercolors, etc. were all popular. But here, they seem to be part of the wall? Like custom wallpaper? They are completely flat. It is both brilliant from a cost-saving perspective and a bit strange. In the long shot, you can see more of the walls and what promises to be the most marvelous ceiling. The spikey bits above the doorway? Love it.
You get the “something is looming over them” feel, can see every actor, and the lighting behind the camera is very diffused and soft. Gorgeous.
Next, we meet two men who desperately need shaves in this episode: the #handsomebutslimy trope guy and the hero of our story. Neither of them has a good reason to have not shaved. Let’s examine…
- Has been riding all day and all night for 2.5 days (I’ve read this is how long that level of beard takes) to save a damsel in distress.
- Is destitute and living in the wilds.
- People in 2019 think it is hawt.
Mr. #handsomebutslimy is the #needsahaircut gem of a man, Sir Edward Denham (Jack Fox). He is a plain old villain, waiting and hoping for an inheritance. This production takes it up a notch by making him extra immoral.
Then we have Mr. Hero — making a very bad first impression by assuming Charlotte is a new maid hired by his sister.
Mr. Hero is hero-y later on.
They look great, the beach is gorgeous, and they are both opinionated and judgy. Just what we like at the beginning of a Jane Austen story. Now go shave your face, Mr. Hero, it is bugging me.
We also meet the other two siblings of Mr. Hero. The comedy younger brother and sister.
Silly man also becomes so very likable through the 8 episodes that I really want silly man to be the happiest of men. Very often in these stories the ridiculous characters are tedious and drone on and on. This production makes them a light refreshment instead.
He and his sister are total hypochondriacs. Unsettled by things like wind, they are perpetually in one sort of health concern or another. Instead of being insufferable like a Mr. Collins, they are also resolutely cheerful. These two thoroughly enjoy each other’s company and do no one any harm.
And look at that plum jacket, on him, delish! They always look great. Her hair is charming, as is her pelisse and dress with dainty print. Small prints on white cotton fabric were tremendously popular, and her fabric is likely an Indian hand-printed fabric. The printing techniques for making these lightweight cotton fabrics have lasted through the ages, and it is nice to see them used well.
Time to go visit the beach! The troupe goes for a bath in the ocean. This is no small undertaking, no. This involves a full change of costume for the ladies, who are wheeled out into the water in wooden contraptions, called bathing machines. The men bathe naked, full man-butts out there in a way that shows how casually they would bathe vs. the PITA it was for ladies.
The ladies arrive — another poor cousin of the dowager, Charlotte, and Mrs. Parker looking good. It is a nice touch that Charlotte is wearing a coarser fabric, wool gloves, and does not have a parasol. It shows that she is from a less-wealthy family, while the tan colors of her outfit matching the sand is a subtle indication that she is trying to fit in. Her hair is dreadful, and again all I can think of is the tangles she would have had in her hair by the end of the day. My hair is the same texture as hers, and it would have been a nightmare.
Nice bathing outfits, likely inspired by engravings done of ladies bathing at Brighton. While these machines and outfits look pretty ridiculous to modern eyes, the restrictions on women bathing in public were strictly followed. The red color, though, I seriously doubt that deep red of a fabric would have been used for something as utilitarian as a bathing costume, if a color like that was even achievable with dye in 1817. Still, look how happy they are — clearly enjoying the treat of getting to bathe in the ocean. It is such a nice scene, genuine and fun. There is a lightness to this scene and others that is so compelling.
35 minutes in, and we get a dance! A ball even! SO exciting. A look at the hairstyles and the backs of the extras gowns makes me so happy. No zippers or metal grommets to be found. The men look great with appropriate shorter trousers and dancing slippers. Hooray! Thank you costume designer Sam Perry (who doesn’t appear to have much historical costume experience). The dancers look really marvelous!
Maybe our Charlotte will have her hair in nice front curls? Nope. Here we have one token curl, a side part, and a light smokey eyeshadow. Sad trombone.
Then they start dancing. It is bad, folks. I have over 15 years of experience with English Contra (not country) Dancing, the style of dance of this time period. I grew up in Berea, KY, and went dancing all the time in their active folk dance community. I can wax rhapsodic about the elegance and swept-away feeling of a double row of people all moving in synchronized patterns. It is a real wonder to feel the air rush past you and hear the slip of feet as waves of people perfectly in step turn in unison. I have felt that magic, and it is hard to capture on screen, but one of the reasons I love filmed versions of Jane Austen’s novels is to see the dancing. I did not see it here.
This is what it looks like — though the music would more likely be piano and violin to start.
In Sanditon, I saw precisely 45 seconds of very awkward waltzing. Ouch. Yes, the waltz was seen in England in 1817, it was as early as 1791. Waltzes at that time were scandalous. If they needed to shove the characters so closely together, there were many ways to do so in a way that didn’t look like they had one lesson half an hour ago. A waltz is a fluid dance, and here they look like their joints could use a bit of oil. I can see that choice as character-based, but it just looks awkward.
The dancing pauses to introduce Crystal Clarke as the wealthy heiress Georgiana Lambe. Let us all give props to all involved for including a woman of color in this story. (More on her later.) Let us admire her lovely and fashion-forward dress.
Her ocean-blue (hat tip to the ocean theme) gown shows a slight widening of the shoulders and longer waistline of the 1820s, while the majority of the ladies are still wearing the empire, under-the-bust neckline of the 1810s. Also her dress fabric looks great. This isn’t cheap bridal satin or taffeta. The choice of a lightweight fabric that has a sheen but isn’t shiny is brilliant. The neckline is quite high for the time, but the ward of Mr. Hero being modest is very appropriate. Looking at her vs. the other ladies, she is strikingly lovely, and the bodice of her dress is practically armor plated. Note how her jewelry highlights her neck to great effect as well, thanks to her hair being up.
Up next we have Mr. #handsomebutslimy asking Charlotte for a dance. The look on her face says a lot!
It is at this point in the story, we are introduced to one of the production’s repeated quirks — the Unexpected Highland Fling. OK no, they don’t actually do the Highland Fling, but someone clearly broke out a tin whistle and the dance goes all Outlander. The actual dancing is really odd, too. It is clearly trying, I see some dance steps in there. They do the “step and turn single” that is ubiquitous, and some turns and promenades. But it is also highly choreographed. There isn’t a repeat in the dance, in a style of dance that is defined by repeating patterns. Hat tip to the choreographer for working a way to capture the conversations between multiple couples, though, that is ace. Full points given there.
It is during this dance that we have the first fully Non-Jane Austen conversations happening.
Like seriously? There is no
crying in baseball rape in Jane Austen. Surely I am mistaken, clearly they didn’t go there. Yes, they went there. This woman then goes on to say she has met more than one man like him and warns Charlotte away. So they went there twice. (Spoiler: they go there over and over again.)
The victim here is Clara Brereton (Lily Sacofsky), a poor relation of the dowager who is hanging around hoping for an inheritance. She hints to Charlotte that she had to do something sexual with #handsomebutslimy in order to avoid something worse. Later we find out from a conversation between #handsomebutslimy and his sister that it was a hand job.
There are no hand jobs in Jane Austen.
Do I even need to point that out? There are plenty of other pressure points and potential tragedies in stories of the time without having to create this base of an act for the drama of it. Is this really the story to tell here? To say that I am disappointed in the writing would be a gross understatement.
The dance concludes after a woman sings in Gaelic (Unexpected Highland Fling) and other super out of context music. Good music, it is really lovely, but about as out of place as finding someone wearing a kimono would have been. See? Even the closed captions need you to know.
Costume note — I love the period detail here. Her necklace tied with ribbon, her hair up with an ornament = lovely.
This shot is pure Disney magic. I congratulate the lighting designer on brilliant work. The chandelier glows with LED magic, and the principals have just enough fill light around and behind the camera to ensure you can see them. It appears totally natural and was probably quite a challenge.
Look at his broad, padded, rectangular shoulders. So very fetching and so very 20th century. The shoulders of both men’s and women’s wear were softly sloped downward in the early 1800s. It is something I always look for in men’s period costume because the square shoulder-padded look is not period. It is easy to see once you start looking for it. Mr. Hero’s coat is also missing the big, broad standing collar that was fully in fashion.
Aaaand, the episode closes with a good ol’ Unexpected Highland Fling hoedown. Yes really.
What did you think of the first episode of Sanditon?