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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Rampling’s role in upcoming Sanditon: favorable omen of depiction of Austen’s covert lesbian subtext?

Perhaps emboldened by the high critical acclaim…. (including mine!:  ) … being showered on Whit Stillman’s  Love & Friendship (his wonderfully subversive film adaptation of the Austen novella known to Janeites as Lady Susan),  Sanditon, another heretofore little-known Austen fiction languishing in the shadow of her six iconic, completed novels, is going to be a film as well.

And also just as Stillman’s adaptation has at its heart a brilliant performance by a beautiful English actress, Kate Beckinsale, so too apparently has the new adaptation of Sanditon coalesced around anticipation of a comparably brilliant performance by an English beauty of the previous generation, the nearly seventy-something Charlotte Rampling.

Here are two news reports that give the essential details of the new film project currently being reported:     Oscar-nominee Charlotte Rampling (45 Years) is to star in a film adaptation of Jane Austen’s never-before dramatised final novel Sanditon. Jim O’Hanlon (A Hundred Streets), director of the 2009 BBC TV adaptation of Austen’s Emma, will direct from a script by British playwright Simon Reade who produces with Guy de Beaujeu for Fluidity Films (Private Peaceful). Goldcrest Film has boarded sales and finance on the project on the verge of the EFM. Goldcrest’s Nick Quested and Pascal Degove will serve as executive producers. Production is anticipated to begin in summer 2016 in the UK with additional casting underway.
Austen died in July, 1817 having written the first eleven chapters of Sanditon. The unfinished manuscript, which blends the writer’s hallmark coruscating satire and romantic comedy, was bequeathed to her niece.
Rampling is due to play the imperious nouveau-riche Lady Denham in the feature which charts the story of Charlotte Heywood who is invited by eternal optimist and entrepreneur Tom Parker to spend the summer season at Sanditon. Intrigued to see (not so) polite society at play in the newly fashionable sea bathing resort, Heywood encounters a string of familiar Austen characters including Denham, the lecherous Sir Edward and the dashing, feckless Sidney Parker and his hypochondriac sisters. …
Degove commented: “Charlotte Rampling is responsible for so many indelible performances, she is perfect for the crucial role of the scheming Lady Denham. This is a genuinely fresh take on a well-loved genre – we expect enormous excitement from cinemagoers and distributors alike.” Reade and de Beaujeu continued: “This is a brand new, never before seen Jane Austen. Her legions of fans worldwide will be thrilled with Sanditon’s romance, comedy, sardonic wit and its clever take on the modern obsessions of health and wealth that is quintessentially Jane Austen.’…”  END QUOTE

Charlotte the Heywood, captivating heroine of Sanditon, is smart, beautiful, and in search of a husband. As in all of Austen's novels, however, the road to matrimony is littered with obstacles: Charlotte must escape the clutches of an insufferable suitor, deal with the fortune-hunting schemes of the reigning local dowager, and outsmart a bevy of ambitious beauties who have set their sights on the charming Sidney Parker -- and convince the fickle young man that he really loves her. 
Over the years, a handful of writers have "finished" Austen's book, of which she only completed 11 chapters before she passed away. Rampling will be playing Lady Denham, and production on the film will kick off this summer.”    END QUOTE

This is of course very exciting news to Janeites perhaps glutted with repeated recent adaptations of the Big Six, and therefore hungry for screen versions of lesser known works from the Austen canon. I went back into my blog posts of the past 5 years, to refresh my memory about what caught my eye in Sanditon when I’ve researched its shadows, and I found two posts which may bear directly on the new film.

First, I have a very strong hunch that Simon Reade knows, as I do, that in 2000, renowned queer literature expert Clara Tuite favorably referred to Terry Castle’s 1995 controversial (but, to my mind, very unfairly criticized) speculations about the very close aunt-niece relationship between Austen and her favourite niece, Fanny Knight. Tuite embarked on her own daring and very insightful speculations about Lady Denham’s lesbian interest in her niece, Clara, in Sanditon.

I’ve long believed that the shadow stories in all of Jane Austen’s fiction, including Lady Denham in Sanditon, depict secondary female characters (most notably Charlotte Lucas in Pride & Prejudice and Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park) who have a strong romantic (i.e., lesbian) interest in the clueless heroines (Eliza Bennet & Fanny Price, respectively) who don’t quite realize that they have a female, as well as male, suitor. And so I agree with Tuite about Lady Denham, and see the Sanditon fragment, the last fiction Austen wrote, as another step in the direction of making that lesbian subtext more explicit.

Which brings me to Charlotte Rampling, who, especially later in her long, distinguished acting career, has been acclaimed for her depictions of lesbian characters, such as in Lulu and Elizabeth in 2002 and Broadchurch in 2013. But it goes further than that. She is also the subject of a 2011 documentary by an Italian lesbian filmmaker, Angelina Maccarone, as discussed here:

In particular, my eye was drawn to this Q&A exchange in an interview with the director:

Q: How would you explain Rampling’s iconic status with lesbians?
A: I think she has a very intelligent sex appeal. And there’s something enigmatic about her, some mystery. Also, she likes suits and looks really good in male attire. I can’t speak for all the lesbians in the world, but to me all that is very attractive.

So, based on all of the above, I’d bet on Rampling’s signing on with the Sanditon project as a sign that Reade’s screenplay will, to some degree, pick up on that same-sex-love aspect of the enigmatic character of Lady Denham. In particular, I think we’re going to see that subtext reflected in the murky relationship between Lady Denham and her mysterious young cousin, Clara, who becomes an object of great curiosity for the novel’s ostensible heroine, Charlotte Heyward---just as the love life of Jane Fairfax is the central mystery that obsesses Emma Woodhouse.

Less likely, I am guessing, is the chance that the new film will also pick up on what I blogged about 5 years ago here…      … in terms of a veiled portrait of Jane Austen’s imperious paternal aunt Jane Leigh-Perrot. That grande dame, who was famously tried for shoplifting lace from a Bath store, but was ultimately acquitted, also kept the entire Austen family on a string of disappointed expectation of inheritance for a very long time. She then proceeded to outlive most of her much younger younger relations, including Jane Austen herself.

While it would be wonderful if the film does dare to pull a few more bricks out from under the slowly crumbling Great Wall of the Myth of Jane Austen (with truisms such as "the Austens were one big happy family"), which I’ve been taking a hammer to the past decade, I am not counting on that one. But we shall see, and Stillman’s astonishingly good adaptation gives me hope that creative lightning will strike twice in two years, in the penumbra of Austen’s fictional output.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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