The Jane Austen mini-craze—Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion have all been adapted for TV or film, and three different Emmas are in the works—could hardly have been predicted. But the author’s popularity should not be all that surprising. In an age when tawdry talk shows and tell-all biographies give self-revelation a bad name, Austen’s reserved 19th-century heroines are a joy to know. Although they adhere to strict rules of decorum, their wit and intelligence shines through, and they eventually triumph over adversity. That their triumph consists solely of securing a good marriage partner reflects the strictures of their times: few women in the early 1800s could even consider a profession outside the home. Nearly two centuries later, another classic coming-ofage story, Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, is appearing on the small screen in a lovingly faithful adaptation. Teenager Del Jordan is its astute,
Austen-like heroine, but Del’s path to selfhood includes becoming a writer and taking a lover: a sort of 20th-century “Sense and Sexuality.”
Produced by Toronto’s Paragon Entertainment Corp. and directed by Ronald Wilson, a Canadian expatriate who has worked on many British dramas, the two-hour movie is a picture-perfect depiction of small-town 1940s Ontario, right down to the last flowered housedress and saddle shoe, like the town of Jubilee itself, nothing much out of the ordinary happens in Lives of Girls & Women, but the ordinary has its own insistent charm and enduring mysteries. Del, speaking as an adult in voice-over narration, describes the lasting effect on her of “every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together—radiant, everlasting.”
But Del is no Anne of Green Gables, and
Jubilee is no Avonlea—the town is as classridden as any of Austen’s 19th-century English villages. And Del, played by luminous newcomer Tanya Allen, is an expert at discerning each stratum: the ladies of the town who snub Del’s mother, the working girls at the creamery who long to marry a man with a big car, the dirt-poor Baptist farmers who look down on Roman Catholics. Together,
they form an intricate social web that both fascinates and entraps Del.
Del’s mother, Ada (Wendy Crewson), is determined that her intelligent daughter escape the limitations of small-town conventionality. Ada herself is an oddity in Jubilee—agnostic, outspoken and desperate for intellectual stimulation. In a finely nuanced performance, Crewson projects Ada’s mix of iron determination and affecting vulnerability: she subtly conveys the mettle
that led Ada to run away as a youth and put herself through high school, and Ada’s earnest, misplaced optimism that Del will eventually lead the life that she missed out on. It is a life that seems to exclude a sexual dimension. “Don’t be distracted,” Ada warns Del. “Once you make that mistake of being distracted over a man, your life will never be your own.”
Del, however, has every intention of getting distracted. Jerry Storey (Matthew Ferguson), her brainy classmate and comically nerdy friend, is out of the question. And Mr. Chamberlain (Dan Lett), the suave local radio host, is a disturbed narcissist. Then pleasure—pure, hedonistic physical pleasure—comes along in the handsome form of Garnet French (Dean McDermott), a taciturn feed-mill worker whose easy sexuality contains an undercurrent of danger.
Del meets him during a religious revival that she has attended more to annoy her agnostic mother than out of any real interest. In a sweetly erotic scene, shot through with golden light and the sound of rollicking gospel singers, Garnet settles in beside her in the pew. Looking straight ahead, he slowly caresses each finger of Del’s hand. His gentle, deliberate moves mark the beginning of an affair that puts Del into a prolonged sexual trance. She can hardly concentrate on her upcoming exams, the ones that are expected to win her a scholarship and a new life.
Scriptwriters Charles K Pitts and Kelly Rebar have done a good job of shaping Munro’s linked short stories into a coherent whole. But no TV script can fully convey the pleasures of Munro’s prose or the complexity of Del’s interior life. Del’s minimal dialogue—true to the book’s first-person narration—means that much of her remains frustratingly opaque. Still, despite being confined to a role that mainly requires her to react, Allen projects both dreaminess and a keenly watchful intelligence. She and Crewson establish a deep, if uneasy, connection between mother and daughter. The other performances, too, are rock solid: veteran actors Barbara Gordon and Frances Hyland are especially delightful as the two maiden aunts.
Like Austen’s heroines, Del eventually finds her way in the world. But it is a world where the lives of girls and women are about to change irrevocably—a world requiring sense and sensibility.
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