The game is afoot in ITV’s Persuasion as Anne Elliot (Sally Hawkins) speed walks down a maze of hallways in Kellynch and jogs down the streets of Bath in what was, presumably, the film makers’ attempt to add action and energy to Jane Austen’s posthumously published 1817 classic. No doubt, the film’s creators felt challenged by a novel with more substance than could possibly be squeezed into a 90 minute time frame and by the precedent of the critically acclaimed 1995 Persuasion which set the standard for Jane Austen film adaptations very high indeed. Screenplay writer Simon Burke and director Adrian Shergold resorted to some rather desperate maneuvers to make this version unpredictable and a bit surprising, but their stratagems were not always successful. Some of the camera work is dizzying, and, at the conclusion of the film, when the compressed plot finally implodes, the viewer may well be left confused as to what just happened and why. If you are searching for an adaptation that is accurate to Jane Austen’s novel, this is not it, but, standing alone as a film, Persuasion has much to recommend it.
Sally Hawkins has a sweet, open face, and, like Amanda Root, those large, liquid eyes inspire the viewer to sympathize with her. Ms. Hawkins cries very convincingly. As she is in nearly every scene and has a great many close-up shots, the film proves something of a showcase for Hawkins, who held up remarkably well, not only as an actor but as an athlete. Eventually, the viewer forgives the ITV Captain Wentworth (Rupert Penry-Jones) for not being Ciaran Hinds, but it’s difficult to imagine a pretty boy like Penry-Jones commanding a battleship of hardened seamen in the Napoleonic Wars.
The sets and scenery are splendid, one can never grow tired of Bath, the costumes charming, and the supporting cast talented, but Jane Austen’s sense of humour appears to have been lost somewhere along the way, a damning criticism to be sure, and following hard on the heels of ITV’s clever and witty Northanger Abbey, one was encouraged to hope for better. And more’s the pity, as Austen supplied plenty of humour in the novel. In this film, Sir Walter (Anthony Head), Elizabeth Elliot (Julia Davis) and Mary Musgrove (Amanda Hale) are more appalling than funny, and some of their best lines were cut, such as Mary Musgrove’s immortal whine: “If there is anything disagreeable going on men are always sure to get out of it.” Who is responsible for such an omission?
Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove (Nicholas Farrell & Stella Gonet), Charles (Sam Hazeldine), Louisa (Jennifer Higham), Henrietta (Rosamund Stephen) and the Crofts (Peter Wight & Marion Bailey) are given minimal dialogue, and perhaps the time constraints demanded some neglect of their characters, but there are other inexplicable changes. While Captain Benwick (Finlay Robertson) is reduced to little more than a plot device, if you blink you may miss him entirely, Captain Harville (Joseph Mawle) becomes a matchmaker. Mr. Elliot (Tobias Menzies) is an obvious cad from the start, an arrogant, impudent puppy of the highest order, and yet the otherwise prudent and overly cautious Lady Russell (Alice Krige) recommends him to Anne. Why? Unfortunately, Lady Russell’s judgment is not the only lapse of common sense in this film.
What about the invalid Mrs. Smith’s (Maisie Dimbleby) unexplained and miraculous cure which not only allows her to rise from her bed and walk but to sprint down the street calling out the latest gossip like the town crier? And how did Kellynch Hall, an entailed estate under lease to a tenant, suddenly become available for purchase? But, apparently, these are minor details and should arouse neither curiosity nor interest. We are merely the viewers. Ours is not to question why, or to question at all. We are, presumably, to be bowled over by the love story, to care about nothing else and to sit back and enjoy a painfully prolonged build up to a kiss and an impromptu waltz on the lawn. The good news is that the ITV Persuasion seems to improve on subsequent viewings. The trick is in forgiving it for being neither Jane Austen’s novel nor the 1995 film. Aye, there’s the rub.
Sheryl Craig is an Instructor of English at Central Missouri State University. She is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Kansas.