‘Sanditon’ showcases Anne Reid’s latest standout performance

Anne Reid starred with Derek Jacobi in "Last Tango in Halifax."
Anne Reid starred with Derek Jacobi in "Last Tango in Halifax."

You may not like what Andrew Davies has done with Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, “Sanditon.” He has added a touch of Dickensian social conscience to a story about love, timing, and a seaside town in flux. It’s more Davies than Austen, and you have to accept that in order to embrace it. I like — not love — the “Masterpiece” series, which is currently airing on WGBH 2 on Sundays at 9 p.m. It’s a pretty diversion, its romantic arcs are absorbing, and there are a few good villains.

“Sanditon” also features a wonderful, central performance by Anne Reid as the manipulative old aunt, who controls her family with the promise of her money. She’s as nasty as can be, as she pits her nieces and nephews against one another with hope of an inheritance, then shames them for the very neediness she has engendered. She treats the young women as if they’re chattel, unwilling to factor in notions of love and attraction — perhaps because she has never experienced them, perhaps because she has. Her insults make for fun viewing, especially when they’re directed at her uncomfortably close, and thoroughly miserable, niece and nephew Esther and Sir Edward. She sees through their pathetic efforts to ingratiate themselves with her. She’s the Lady Violet (from “Downton Abbey”) of this piece, although there’s no cooing or wit; she just says what she sees in no uncertain terms.


Before “Sanditon,” I admired Reid in many movies and TV series, including the HBO mystery “Five Days,” and the “Masterpiece” shows “Bleak House” and the remake of “Upstairs Downstairs.” But I really started to pay close attention with “Last Tango in Halifax,” in which she and Derek Jacobi play former childhood sweethearts who reconnect in their 70s. And then I loved her in HBO’s “Years and Years,” too, as the family matriarch coping with a world in crisis. She is a treasure.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.