The 1995 (Sony/BBC/WGBH) version of Persuasion, ironically the first in the long line of “new” Austen adaptations, has been called “The film most like sitting down with an Austen novel.” High praise indeed.
With it’s timeless story and autumnal feel this film is beautiful and comfortingly familiar while at the same time fresh and surprising. Persuasion remains a first not only time-wise, but is also the first Austen film to benefit from foreign sponsorship (other than the United States) with it’s Sony distributor (based in Japan) as well as being the first WGBH/Masterpiece Theater film created for cinema distribution. 1995 was a big year for costume drama and Persuasion held it’s own against the myriad of BAFTA (British equivalent to the American Oscar) award nominees- even beating rival Pride and Prejudice for best costume design! Other entrants that year (in all categories) included Sense and Sensibility, Braveheart, Rob Roy, The Madness of King George, Cold Comfort Farm, and Apollo 13. Truly a stellar slate and difficult decisions all round.
The combination of Nick Dear’s heartwrenching screenplay, Roger Mitchell’s innovative camera work and Jeremy Sams award winning score create a beautiful, not to be forgotten montage of “everyday” life in Regency England. Also contributing to the overall effect was a phenomenal cast comprised of film and theater veterans including Corin Redgrave (brother of Lynn and Vanessa) as Sir Walter Elliot, John Woodvine (Sir Hew Dalrymple, Horatio Hornblower: The Duchess and the Devil) as Admiral Croft, Phoebe Nicholls (Empress of Lilliput, Gulliver’s Travels)- a properly proud and spiteful Elizabeth Elliot, Sophie Thompson (Miss Bates, Emma2) as the often hysterical hypochondriac sister Mary Musgrove, Judy Cornwall (Daisy, Keeping Up Appearances) as the well meaning Mrs. Musgrove,Victoria Hamilton (Pride and Prejudice2, Mansfield Park2), making another Austen appearance, as the flighty Henrietta Musgrove and Samuel West (Major Edrington, Horatio Hornblower: Frogs and Lobsters) as the ever-so-slightly menacing (or smarmy, if you prefer) Mr. William Walter Elliot. Simon Russell Beale (Hamlet, An Ideal Husband) also makes an appearance as the genial, if rather clueless, Charles Musgrove.
Secondary characters aside, it is the main protagonists that make this film shine- Amanda Root (Anne Elliot) and Ciaran Hinds (Captain Wentworth.) Root’s performance is simply lovely, filled with both inner strength and the sadness of a woman approaching the 19th century equivalent of spinsterhood as an unmarried 27-year-old. Amazingly, she herself actually appears to grow more beautiful as the film goes on and her confidence grows. Interestingly, the viewer is allowed to watch her change almost from the perspective of Capt. Wentworth.
Actress Amanda Root explains her character:“What I think is hard in any film adaptation of a book is that you might have a whole chapter written about your character’s feelings, and then you get a couple of scenes on the film in which you don’t say anything. And yet somehow you have to get across how she’s feeling. That’s the hardest thing. To strike a balance between sharing too much or sharing too little, but actually getting the message across. You might notice that Anne Elliot doesn’t say as much as the other people in the first half of the film, and that’s right. It’s right that she doesn’t say a lot, because that’s the kind of woman she is. Anne’s had to deal with an awful lot of pain because she lost the man of her dreams. She also left him not through her own will but because she was persuaded that that was the right thing to do. That’s part of the tragedy in a sense, that she has coped with it. She’s somebody who accepts her life as it is, and fully prepared to settle down to spinsterhood, and die an old maid. She doesn’t expect Frederick Wentworth to come back, and if he didn’t she would have a relatively happy life, but he does comes back, and she has to readjust. She is now a much more mature woman, and I think she would not make the same choices again, although she has to respect the choice she made when she was younger.”
Captain Wentworth also makes a transformation over the course of the film. A reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “The lease of [Anne’s] father’s estates to a navy man… brings Wentworth back into her life. Now the man she turned away is mature, worldly and rich. But she has so repressed her spirits by becoming plain and kindly that he doesn’t even recognize the woman who only a few years before made his heart leap. And besides, he is distracted by other women now, Anne’s fawning sisters [in-law.]The plot thickens deliciously around a seaside incident in which one of Wentworth’s giddy admirers has an accident. Almost at once, Anne emerges as the inevitable woman Wentworth loves, but there are complications. A young man has shown a strangely impatient interest in her. The captain stammers, stutters and may be too late. This film is… a big one for Hinds (Mr. Rochester, Jane Eyre, 1997) because he goes big with that stormy, darkly handsome look that makes hearts throb. His performance is a wonderful mix of dash and awkwardness — viewers are likely to feel he’s so vulnerable and such a prize, they just want to point him in the right direction. It’s a big part of the film’s ruffled charm.”
Hinds also comments on his character’s turmoil, “I see Captain Wentworth as a man who couldn’t get it together. He is talked about a lot but doesn’t come into the story for quite a while. He has led a tough life at sea and in society he behaves very formally with women. At first he is very cool with Anne Elliot–the woman who rejected him–but in his heart there’s something very different going on. Obviously she’s older, her glow of youth has gone, but seeing her again, his feelings start to come back. What’s extraordinary about him is that in front of this one woman he is socially inept. He is stumbling and nervous. Yet in his professional life, he is personally responsible for hundreds of men.”
By the close of the film, things have worked themselves out the inevitable conclusion, and yet, it is so touching- and so unsettled up until the very end- that you can’t help coming away satisfied and longing for more. Filmed on location in Bath and Lyme the movie brings Austen’s last completed novel to vivid life, avoiding the pitfalls of so many other adaptations- cutting too much, adding new scenes or making life just a bit too pretty and idyllic. The biggest complaint this film can boast is that of not giving Mr. William Elliot his full measure of nastiness.
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