Anne Shirley’s fake freckles have got to go.
Of all the faults in PBS’ “Anne of Green Gables,” these are the most glaring and, well, in your face. The spots stand out in stark contrast to actress Ella Ballentine’s clear complexion, and in each scene the viewer is often caught up marveling at the freckles’ uniformity instead of paying attention to the dialogue or action.
It’s a testament to Ballentine’s talents then that she is able to overcome those distractions and present a very charming, sprightly and chatty Anne Shirley, the literary orphan made famous in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s children’s novels. This ability is in keeping with the heroine herself, who is always melodramatically lamenting her red hair and plain looks but just can’t stop herself from celebrating the beauties of nature and life’s joys. There is no need to remind Anne to be in the moment. She is a sensualist in the truest definition of the word, and the scene below in which she tastes ice cream for the first time is a perfect example of her sunny and grateful nature:
Although the friendship between Anne and Matthew is instant, director John Kent Harrison takes his time to carefully build the relationship between Marilla and Anne at the beginning of the movie. He especially lingers on Marilla’s face so that we catch every twitch and softening of her gaze to reveal how she feels when Anne is detailing the abuse and neglect she’s experienced in her past.
The rest of the movie, however, feels rushed. Perhaps in an effort to make up for lost time, Harrison packs in adventure after adventure in an episodic deluge that doesn’t allow the actors, much less the viewers, to actually feel anything. The highs and lows aren’t earned and have no apparent continuity. Even the scene with the famed puffed sleeves falls flat. It’s all kind of a happy, sweet mess that ties together at the end.
And now I turn to the part of the review where as an “Anne of Green Gables” purist, I’m going to be annoying with the nitpicky gripes. Firstly, Sheen is a veteran actor who oozes charisma in this role… but almost too much so. Matthew Cuthbert is supposed to be shy, taciturn, and supremely awkward, especially around women who are not his sister. Sheen’s version is just a bit too full of energy and spirit. He’s great, but he’s not Matthew.
Julia Lalonde has the opposite problem as Anne’s “bosom friend” Diana Barry. The actress conveys the necessary sweet disposition, but she is neither raven-haired nor plump. For an adaptation that goes out of its way to give faux freckles and dyed red hair to its brunette star, could they not spring for black hair dye at least for Diana?
A couple other character gripes: Ms. Rachel Lynde (Kate Hennig) isn’t horrible enough, and so far, Anne’s main scholastic rival and future love interest Gilbert Blythe (Drew Haytaoglu) fails to impress.
Elements of the story are also problematic, and this may be owed to the decision to break the novel into three movies, with “Anne of Green Gables: The Good Stars” and “Anne of Green Gables: Fire and Dew” set to be released in the next two years. This unfortunately has created the need for manufactured endings and shuffling signature events that fans are sure to miss, such as some of the story concerning Gilbert Blythe. The production also included an incident in which Anne literally walks on thin ice (seen in the trailer at the end of this story), which was not canon. It’s puzzling since the source material has plenty of exploits to choose from that are far more engaging and demonstrate Anne’s imagination and spirit better.
With all that said, this adaptation may suffer in comparison to the novel and iconic 1980s miniseries, but it’s still fun family fare for the holidays. With Netflix and CBC collaborating on a darker version of the series called “Anne,” due out in 2017, this is an enjoyable appetizer until that binge arrives.
Watch the official “Anne of Green Gables” trailer below.