Of the classics of modern children’s literature that attract a devoted following, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books, published in the early 20th century, are among the most sturdy and emotionally complex. The saga of Anne Shirley, an orphan who finds an accidental family with brother and sister Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, is one of intensely felt emotions and an often brilliant communication of the bristling thoughts in a young girl’s mind. It’s no wonder Anne Shirley has remained so vital into our own century — she is at once a cherished product of a bygone era, and a perhaps eternally contemporary fictional figure.
The opening hours of the new Anne with an “E”, which begins streaming on Netflix this Friday, introduce us to 11 year-old Anne, played by Amybeth McNulty in an extraordinary performance. She’s a redheaded, gawky, chatty, hard-little-stick of a girl, all elbows and knees. When the orphanage sends her by accident to the Cuthberts — they’d requested a boy — Anne has to prove herself worthy of staying. Siblings Marilla and Matthew are terse, hard-working people on a farm in fictional Bollingbroke, Nova Scotia (a stand-in for Prince Edward Island, where some of this show was filmed, and which has become a pilgrimage-point for Anne-fans).
Marilla, played by Geraldine James, and Matthew, played by R.H. Thompson, are initially confounded by Anne, who seems to them an endlessly talkative girl prone to fantasies and foolishness. We are made privy to Anne’s background: a sorry life spent being physically and mentally abused in the orphanage and in the various homes in which she’s been placed thus far, without any family accepting her permanently. It becomes clear that Anne’s combination of charm and stubbornness is a survival technique, and once the Cuthberts decide to adopt Anne, she relaxes enough to let them into her world, as they have allowed her into theirs.
If you’re an Anne fan, you are asking this question: How does this production compare to the 1985 miniseries Anne of Green Gables, a much-loved series starring Megan Follows as Anne, and Colleen Dewhurst and Richard Farnsworth as Marilla and Matthew? This new Anne has been reconceived by producer-writer Moira Walley-Beckett, who came to prominence as a writer on Breaking Bad. Walley-Beckett has made Anne’s suffering more explicit, suggesting that the girl continues to suffer a form of posttraumatic stress disorder. The dialogue occasionally slips into a too-contemporary sound: When Anne says, “I don’t want to get too attached, not if it’s all going to disappear,” you think, Did people in the early 1900s use the word “attached” that way? Probably not.
Nevertheless, Anne with an “E” both stands apart from the 1985 Anne and connects to it in its openhearted eagerness. McNulty gives an exceptionally deft, nuanced performance that is the equal of any adult performance I’ve seen on television this year. Beautifully shot, and full of marvelous supporting performances, Anne with an “E” is a fresh version of Anne of Green Gables that newcomers and cult fans can enjoy equally.
Anne with an “E” begins streaming Friday on Netflix.