A darker, moodier adaptation of the Victorian young-adult novel brings a stark tragedy to the story of imaginative orphan Anne Shirley
“Anne With an E,” like its protagonist, is fond of a little sweeping romance. The opening frames of the first episode of Netflix’s next offering depict Matthew Cuthbert (R.H. Thompson) astride a galloping horse, racing across a gorgeous and remote landscape of seaside meadows and flowering cherry trees. It’s a distinctly more dashing interpretation of Matthew than who he is in L.M. Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables,” in which the never-married Matthew is an old, shy man — reticent to a fault, afraid of women, and terrified of conflict. He would be surprised to learn that in “Anne With an E,” he cuts quite a heroic figure as he rushes through the pastoral landscape of Prince Edward Island.
But perhaps “Anne With an E” is showing us the world a little less than it is and a little bit more as 13-year-old redheaded orphan Anne Shirley (Amybeth McNulty) would want it to be: more “romantical,” more “tragical,” more “radiantly lovely.” And though the Canadian series has not changed Anne’s name to her preferred Cordelia, fans of the beloved Avonlea books will still be surprised by the series’ angstier interpretation of Anne’s story. In “Anne With an E,” quirky and spirited Anne is definitively an abuse survivor, fleeing from cruel foster parents and a bleak orphanage (Showrunner Moira Walley-Beckett did, after all, work on the rather dark “Breaking Bad” for several years). The series expands Anne’s backstory through flashbacks, framing her characteristic flights of fancy, spurts of temper, and grandiose monologues as the defense and survival mechanisms of a traumatized child.
On one hand, it’s a brilliant interpretation: Like many young adult stories, “Anne of Green Gables” has disturbing subtext about Anne’s life before she meets the Cuthberts. On the other hand, the show can’t quite sustain the brilliance, veering first into maudlin territory and then into the oddly saccharine as it tests out its tone. “Anne With an E” offers insight into Anne’s character and the formation of her odd-but-lovely community in the quaint, cozy town of Avonlea — indeed, this interpretation might be the first time that Anne’s sudden attachment to the otherwise boring Diana Barry makes sense. But the show gets a bit bogged down in telling the story of Anne’s dysfunction, distracting from the book’s greatest strength — its lighthearted comedy, which both laughs with and occasionally at Anne. The show is a little more emo, for lack of a better word, with a slightly soapy view of Anne’s trials and tribulations that at times really humanize her and in others, are rather infantilizing. And while, once again, that seems to be part of the show’s attempt to tell Anne’s story from Anne’s perspective, that breaks down during the scenes she isn’t in.
Still, Walley-Beckett’s adaptation of the Montgomery books is mostly successful. “Anne With an E” takes the books, and she in them, completely seriously — and lends visual components to her raptures over the landscape of her new home, from its apple blossoms and cherry trees to the “Lake of Shining Waters,” i.e., a pond. McNulty throws herself into every single one of Anne’s fancies, with physical commitment that is both admirable and a little worrying (how many times can one little girl throw herself onto her knees?). The actress’ ease with the role is especially apparent in how she struggles to get over the traumas inflicted upon her by a troubled past. In fact, she sometimes seems to have a better handle on it than the writers do.
In Anne’s eyes, everything has a wonderful story and some deeper significance, and “Anne With an E” gives her landscape a little of that fantasy. The first episode, directed by Niki Caro, is awash with lush landscapes and gorgeous scenery; every sunset and dawning has a glow of wonder. That glow extends to Matthew, who is much more of a character in “Anne With an E” than he is in the books. In the second episode, following a chain of events that does not occur in “Anne of Green Gables,” Matthew even has a solo adventure. The show has taken far fewer liberties with Marilla (Geraldine James), whose Victorian severity and prickly affection bring the book’s descriptions to life. Marilla is neither quirky nor reticent, and as the sterner of the two siblings, she’s often pitted against Anne’s strong will. James interprets her gradual unbending quite beautifully. Her friend and neighbor Rachel Lynde (Corrine Koslo) is similarly well-conceived, and the two very different women are able to suggest a longstanding friendship without saying much at all.
“Anne With an E” has made a few perplexing choices in how it is adapting “Anne of Green Gables.” But when it comes to bringing Avonlea’s atmosphere to life, and adding depth to a relatively simple story, it succeeds admirably. It’s an adaptation that looks back on a childhood story with adult eyes, to interpret more than just the lines on the page. And fortunately, it is taking its time. The first three hours of the show cover just about the first 10 chapters of “Anne of Green Gables,” which runs for 38 chapters — and is succeeded by eight more books, dozens of short stories about the town of Avonlea, and several other novels set on Prince Edward Island. There’s plenty of story here, and much atmosphere to create. Like many of the good residents of Avonlea — and Anne herself — “Anne With an E” seems content to take the lovelier scenic route through this world.
All seven episodes of “Anne With an E” will be available for streaming on Netflix Friday, May 12.