The Complete Jane Austen "Persuasion" by Victoire Sanborn
As I sit at my computer contemplating what to write about Persuasion, I am quaking from the top of my blond Dutch bob to the heels of my sensible Aerosols. Yikes! I have been asked to contribute my thoughts about the first episode of what promises to be an eight week-long PBS cinematic love fest with Jane Austen.
I will leave it to my esteemed fellow bloggers, who have been chosen to write about the other installments of The Complete Jane Austen series on Masterpiece Theatre, to write knowledgeably about our popular author. I will simply relate my personal impressions.
I must admit that when I first read Persuasion as a young girl, it wasn't my favorite Jane Austen novel. Compared to Pride and Prejudice, which I read every year, Jane's last completed novel, published posthumously by her brother Henry in 1818, is short and dreary. I felt little affinity for mousy Miss Anne Elliot or dashing Captain Wentworth. But then I began to meander down life's unpredictable paths. With maturity came the realization that one's journey through life is not self-determined; it is fraught with second-guesses, instances of regret, and decisions based on wrong information. Over time I began to appreciate Persuasion's themes of loss and redemption. Now, as a woman of a certain age, I consider it my second favorite Jane Austen novel.
In the movie, actress Sally Hawkins portrays Anne Elliot with a sure and delicate touch. Upon first viewing, her subtly nuanced performance escaped my full appreciation. At the start of the film, Sally presents a sad and stoic Anne, a spinster who has lost her youthful bloom and still regrets her decision to break off her relationship with Captain Wentworth eight years before. Anne, dressed in drab dresses and wearing a severe hairstyle, has taken herself to the sideline of life: baby-sitting her sister's children, playing the pianoforte for impromptu dances, and catering to her vain father and selfish sisters. The film's dour music echoes Anne's unvarying life, which promises endless days and nights of dreary repetition.
In the movie, Sally is frequently shown writing in a journal, an effective technique to allow us to get inside Anne's mind. We learn of her trepidation about meeting Captain Wentworth again. Through her writing, we also learn that she is a strong and unsung heroine. In fact, her family cannot seem to function smoothly without her sensible and no nonsense approach to life. It is interesting to note that, in her letters, Jane Austen described Anne as someone who was almost too good a person. Anne's situation as the novel opens so closely resembles Jane's own life that I am tempted to ask: "In what ways does Anne represent Jane?"
When Rupert Penry-Jones as Captain Wentworth makes a brief appearance at Uppercross Cottage, the viewer has already developed a deep empathy for Anne. Using only subtle facial expressions, Sally Hawkins manages to fully convey Anne's awkwardness when she unexpectedly encounters the Captain, and we squirm for her when, clearly ready for marriage now that he has made his fortune, he begins to court the Musgrove sisters. As the plot in this all-too-short movie unfolds, Sally Hawkins manages to blossom in front of our eyes. Enjoying the fresh sea air at Lyme Regis, her expression brightens, her cheeks start to pink, and her movements become more determined and energetic. Even her wardrobe appears subtly more colorful, so that by the end of the film we begin to understand why Captain Wentworth fell in love with Anne in the first place.
Anthony Head as Sir Walter Elliot plays a suitably pompous fop and cold-hearted father, and Alice Krige is credible as the interfering but well-intentioned Lady Russell. Rupert Penry-Jones is a handsome, age-appropriate Captain Wentworth, even though I found him to be a little too pretty and pale to play a weathered naval officer. While Rupert is given some major scenes, especially one in which the Captain describes the sort of woman he is seeking in a wife, his speaking role seems too slight to do justice as the hero of the story. Tobias Menzies as William Elliot is given such short shrift that, unless viewers already know Persuasion's plot, they might well mistake him for a good guy until Mrs. Smith unmasks his slimy character. This movie fairly whizzes along, and before we know it, our 90 minutes with the Elliots and Musgroves are up. We have barely gotten to know the Crofts and about the life of a naval officer which forms such a strong backdrop to the novel.
This brings me to the film's problematic ending. I could have tolerated this shortened film version of Persuasion better if the director and writers hadn't contrived to show Sally Hawkins sprinting through Bath at a full clip. No proper Regency Miss would be caught dead running around town like a common fishwife, let alone be seen in public kissing a man. Ok, so I get it. The film makers mean to convey that this time around Miss Anne Elliot would let nothing stand in the way of her getting her man. But, sheez, did they have to prolong our agony by making poor Anne race towards the Crofts only to find out that Captain Wentworth was nowhere around? I felt my heart pound unnaturally fast as I watched this diminutive actress huff and puff her way back to the starting gate before she almost collapses in the arms of the Captain.
I found a few other details about the movie bothersome: the absence of the conversation between Anne and Captain Harville, which is the key plot point that triggers Captain Wentworth's declaration of love in a letter; Mrs. Smith seen wandering around town (isn't she too weak for such exercise?); Elizabeth Elliot's (Julia Davis) lack of outstanding beauty and looking almost as old as Sir Walter; and Amanda Hale's almost cartoonish interpretation of Mary Musgrove. And, finally, how the deuce did Captain Wentworth manage to purchase Kellynch Hall for his bride? Did he come to a secret arrangement with William Elliot? All these changes to Jane Austen's original plot beg the question: Why do directors and script writers feel the need to tinker with Jane's plot when the changes do not result in a superior film?
To give the film its due, Sally Hawkins gives an affecting performance, and the dialogue sparkles with Jane Austen's wit and insights. With all the movie's faults, I can think of no better way to spend a pleasant hour and a half on a Sunday night than to watch this new version of Persuasion on PBS's MasterpieceTheatre.