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Hallmark recasts 'Sense and Sensibility' and debuts other Austen-inspired films

Actors Susan Lawson-Reynolds, Beth Angus, Deborah Ayorinde, and Bethany Antonia in Hallmark's adaptation of Jane Austen's <em>Sense and Sensibility</em>.
Steffan Hill
/
2024 Hallmark Media
Actors Susan Lawson-Reynolds, Beth Angus, Deborah Ayorinde, and Bethany Antonia in Hallmark's adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.

The Hallmark Channel is best known for its popular contemporary Christmas-themed fare. But this February, or "Loveuary," as they are calling it, the network has a different cause for celebration — the debut of a quartet of new films inspired by the creativity and fandom of Regency-era novelist Jane Austen, including Sense and Sensibility with a mostly Black lead cast.

The first three films center contemporary women finding love in connection with their favorite writer, each one highlighting a dimension of the novelist's enduring appeal. In Paging Mr. Darcy — which kicks off the series with its premiere Sat., Feb. 3 — a serious Austen scholar, who prizes rationality almost to the exclusion of feeling, loosens her stays while vying for a tenure track position at Princeton University. Delivering the keynote address at a costumey fan convention is far from Eloise's speed, but since the search chair is the organizer, she reluctantly plays along. Her guide and romantic interest is the event's Mr. Darcy. It's a great example of Austen tropes fused with one of Hallmark's mainstays, the fish-out-of-water-style romcom, which benefits from the fizzy chemistry between its leads. In Eloise's voice, the film effectively highlights (if not quite rising to) Austen's strengths — her wit, prose, and razor-sharp social observation.

The next two films, debuting Feb. 10 and 17, share an element of bookish fantasy. Love & Jane stars Days of Our Lives veteran Allison Sweeney as a Boston-based aspiring novelist who gets advice from Jane Austen herself. In An American in Austen, the aptly named actress Eliza Bennett stars as a librarian in a romantic crisis who is magically transported into her favorite novel, Pride and Prejudice, and gets to meet Mr. Darcy, the hero of her heart to whom no real man can compare. This was the only film not available for screening, but the early clips are delightful.

The fourth and final film in the Hallmark "Loveuary with Jane Austen" lineup is an altogether different kind of standout. This is the real headliner of the group — and a first for the channel: a diverse, full-on period drama based on Austen's first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, complete with lavish ballgowns and Regency-appropriate manners.

Revisiting Sense and Sensibility

Despite staying true to the classic marriage plot of love and inheritance, in which the Dashwood sisters are displaced from their home following the death of their father, this is a Sense and Sensibility of a strikingly different hue. UK-based British actors and actresses of African descent play four of the five principal characters — Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, and potential suitors Colonel Brandon and Mr. John Willoughby.

Dan Jeannotte and Deborah Ayorinde in <em>Sense and Sensibility</em>.
Steffan Hill / 2024 Hallmark Media
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2024 Hallmark Media
Dan Jeannotte and Deborah Ayorinde in Sense and Sensibility.

Led by British-Nigerian actress Deborah Ayorinde (star of The Riches, and an independent spirit award nominee for Them) as the practical and sensible elder sister Elinor and Bethany Antonia as Marianne, the cast includes several of the best supporting character actors on British television. Martina Laird, who gave a harrowing performance as a struggling mom harboring shocking secrets in the fifth season of ITV/PBS's Unforgotten, delivers a bravura comedic turn as Mrs. Jennings. Carlyss Peer, so contained as DS Kate Miskin on Dalgliesh, is elegantly scheming, an iron fist in a velvet glove, as Elinor and Marianne's snobbish sister-in-law Fanny Dashwood. Elinor's diffident love Edward Ferrars is played by one of the few non-British cast members, Canadian-born actor Dan Jeannotte, who is white. No newcomer to love stories, Jeannotte is Hallmark favorite and perhaps best known outside his work on the channel as the on-and-off love interest Ryan Decker to The Bold Type's ambitious Jane.

On the heels of Lin-Manuel Miranda's mulitracial Hamilton cast and Bridgerton on Netflix, this casting is less radical than it might have been in the past. But this production still tows a challenging line. While not having the universal fandom of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility remains one of Austen's most beloved and studied works. Montclair State University Associate Prof. of English and Founder of the Race and Regency Lab Patricia Matthew calls it Austen's "most pragmatic novel," noting that it's politically complex in how it handles questions of money, gender and power. "I'm absolutely fascinated by the fact that this is set in the 19th century. And there it's a predominantly Black cast," she says.

'Respect the work and do something creatively refreshing'

Conscious of that canonical status, Creative Producer Tia A. Smith says the production had two guiding aims: "respect the work and do something creatively refreshing." So while the combination of source material and cast are unlike any we've seen before on this channel, the production team took pains to ensure that the film would be true to the period. From the story arc and details like costuming, hair and set design, down to the wallpaper and table settings, according to Smith, "every detail, every choice is deliberate." To capture the look of the time, the exteriors and interiors were shot on location in Ireland and Bulgaria, at centuries-old buildings and castles.

That push for period authenticity began with Executive Producer Toni Judkins. She had this adaptation in mind when she first came to the channel in 2021 as head of Hallmark Mahogany, a 34-year-old legacy brand targeted to Black families that began in the company's greeting card division. These Austen heroines "are smart, strong women who subtly push up against the conventions of their time, with grace and dignity," she says. As a storyteller, it was "easy to see how Black women embody so many of the traits of these characters. That made Sense and Sensibility a natural fit."

Judkins turned to author-consultant Vanessa Riley for help in recreating the novel on screen. Riley is best known for her well-researched biographical novel Island Queen, (a 2021 NPR Books We Love pick) about the complicated and tumultuous life of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, a businesswoman who was born into slavery in the 18th century on a Caribbean plantation and ended up buying her freedom and the freedom of her family.

Placing people of color at the center

There's a hidden symmetry to Riley's role on Sense and Sensibility. Riley has made a specialty of bringing to light the stories of people of color that are routinely overlooked or diminished in the collective memory around 18th and 19th century Europe. Her own historical fiction was inspired by a character in one of Austen's least known works. Over a decade ago, when Riley discovered Miss Lambe – a mixed-race Caribbean heiress in Austen's unfinished novel Sanditon – she felt compelled to suss out the facts behind her origin story. Her research revealed that Austen's character was grounded in reality and that it was the public record that needed correction. Since then, Riley has devoted much of her writing to that restoration.

Akil Largie and Bethany Antonia are seen in Hallmark's adaptation of <em>Sense and Sensibility. </em>
Steffan Hill / 2024 Hallmark Media
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2024 Hallmark Media
Akil Largie and Bethany Antonia are seen in Hallmark's adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.

In some ways, this production of Sense and Sensibility is a counterbalance to prior erasure and an answer to a frequent challenge. As a Black author of historical fiction set in 19th century England, Riley noted, "How do you have a place in this world?" is a question that has always been presented to me based on what I write." Here the answer is on the screen.

Riley spent a month on the set of Hallmark's Sense and Sensibility, helping the producers reimagine an Austen romance that placed people of color at the center rather than the periphery or in supporting roles – as Miss Lambe was in Sanditon, adapted by PBS. While the constraints of time and format allowed limited room for explicit change within the script, the production team supported the multiracial casting in subtle ways.

Notable people of color in European history appear in art in the backgrounds of many scenes, on the walls of the homes the Dashwood live in and visit. That artwork includes a painting of the Saint-Domingue-born French Creole Gen. Thomas-Alexandre Dumas (father of the author Alexandre Dumas, who wrote Three Musketeers and Count of Monte Cristo). Though the general is the subject of the prize-winning biography, The Black Count, he remains unknown to many who aren't dedicated history buffs. As described on NPR's Weekend Edition, Dumas was a hero of the French Revolution, "the son of a Haitian slave and a French nobleman" who became "Napoleon's leading swordsman of the Revolution, then a prisoner, and finally almost forgotten." Despite his accomplishments and inspiring his son's fiction, Gen. Dumas will likely be a new figure to many Sense and Sensibility viewers.

This latest Sense and Sensibility adaptation also nods to 18th century African American author Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) with a special moment woven into the romance as Willoughby and Marianne bond over their shared love of her poetry. The production places a great deal of weight on small embellishments and painstaking flourishes that may be overlooked in a film that prizes subtlety and rule-following, but is also forced to compress its narrative.

As Riley has documented, people of color are a part of the history of Austen's time. But lines of caste and color were complicated, and neither the original text nor the 21st-century production have room for that type of contemplation. Still the movie is a beautifully cast and faithful enough reimagining that it provides a fitting high note to this month-long homage.

A slow runner and fast reader, Carole V. Bell is a cultural critic and communication scholar focusing on media, politics and identity. You can find her on Twitter @BellCV.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carole V. Bell