There’s a moment, very early on, when it seems that the producers of the latest TV adaptation of Anne of Green Gables might have stretched too far in their effort to create an updated Anne that distances itself from all the versions that precede it.
The series opens with a sweeping aerial shot that zooms in on a rider on horseback, engaged in a mad dash through the ebb-tide surf along a windswept coastline. There’s a sense of great urgency to the moment, and then, suddenly, at the one-minute mark, the opening notes of the Tragically Hip’s Ahead By a Century impose themselves over the moving picture.
It’s a wonderful song with haunting lyrics that hold particular resonance for Canadians these days, but its presence here is discombobulating, the decidedly anachronistic placement of a 20th-century song in a period-piece 19th-century tale. It leaves the viewer wondering if what follows will be an overreaching attempt to somehow modernize Lucy Maud Montgomery’s beloved tale — which, few would argue, is both unnecessary and ill-considered.
The musical moment passes, however, and what follows is a newly adapted-for-TV retelling of the Green Gables saga that is unique, respectful, insightful, challenging and contemporary, but still somehow traditional, and very, very wonderful.
Anne, an eight-hour series that opens with a movie-length (two-hour) première Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBC, is like any other screen adaptation of this oft-told tale in that its success or failure depends almost wholly on the casting of its red-headed heroine. And in Irish-Canadian actress Amybeth McNulty, this version’s producers have come as close as anybody ever could to finding a perfect Anne.
As the headstrong and wildly imaginative young orphan, who comes to live with aging siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert (Geraldine James and R.H. Thomson), McNulty is a barely contained bundle of enthusiastic energy. Gangly, forceful and yet deftly nuanced in every onscreen moment, the teen delivers a performance that is fully up to the lofty standard set by her experienced and highly skilled co-stars.
The two-hour première focuses on the arrival of Anne at the Cuthberts’ home, Green Gables; the unusual brother/sister tandem, having decided they need help on the farm in their advancing years, have sought to adopt an orphan boy who can ease the burden of their daily chores. What awaits Matthew at the train station, however — the result, perhaps, of a miscommunicated message or a bookkeeping error — is Anne, all red-haired and pigtailed and freckle-faced and obviously not a boy.
Matthew, painfully shy and almost physically rigid in his reserve, remains almost silent on the wagon ride back to Green Gables, where he’s sure to catch an earful from Marilla for bringing home a girl.
His silence is filled, and then some, by Anne’s enthusiastic pronouncements about everything she sees, hears and smells along the way. She expounds on the beauty of the countryside, renames every tree and pond in the most colourful of terms, and enthuses at length to Matthew — who seems quietly entertained by the young girl’s ramblings — about the wonderful possibilities of this new life she’s been offered.
And then, when the wagon arrives back at Green Gables, stone-faced Marilla punctures Anne’s dreamy bubble with a three-word question: "Where’s the boy?"
What follows is the most delicate of negotiations, as Anne tries to convince Marilla — without much success — that she could be just as useful on the farm as a boy, and Matthew summons up a few barely audible words in support of the young girl’s plea. There are several moments during the Cuthberts’ days-long deliberation on Anne’s fate in which something that happens — a sound, a word, a reflection in a teacup — prompts a flashback to the horrors she suffered in her past at the hands of abusive families that took her in as a servant or bullies at the orphanage between placements.
It’s in these disturbing sequences that screenwriter Moira Walley-Beckett — an Emmy winner for her work on Breaking Bad — infuses Anne with a level of darkness not seen in earlier versions and, as a result, forces viewers to reconsider the foundations of the fantasy-inclined girl’s unique personality.
This ambitious adaptation, which will be distributed globally by Netflix in May, is a considerable TV achievement. Even if you’ve read Montgomery’s literary tales and seen all the various screen adaptations, this welcome new arrival might leave you feeling like you’re meeting Anne for the very first time.