Part VI: Persuasion, cont’d.
It was extremely difficult for me to be objective while watching P95 because it is not only my favorite Austen adaptation, it is one of my favorite films of any kind. But, in order to be as fair as possible, I would not let myself not to watch it this year (I can watch this movie several times a year and not get bored), and instead waited until the proper time. So finally, I sat in front of the television with a pad and paper last night to take notes and try to forget why I love this movie so much. I’ve worked very hard at being objective, but it’s really not easy. I’ll probably end up rambling. You’ve been warned.
This film was produced by the BBC (with some financial help from PBS) and was released in several theaters around the US before being shown on PBS as part of Masterpiece Theater. Seeing it on the big screen at the theater at the Plaza Hotel (sadly, it’s long gone) with my friend N (the one who now lives in Tampa) was quite an experience. I had never read the book, but was inspired to immediately. I loved the book even more than the movie, and that’s saying a lot.
The film has an outstanding cast that anyone who is a fan of British television will recognize: Amanda Root, Ciarán Hinds, Fiona Shaw, John Woodvine, Corin Redgrave, Sophie Thompson, Simon Russell-Beale, Victoria Hamilton, Phoebe Nicholls, Susan Fleetwood, Philip Glenister, Judy Cornwell and Samuel West. The cast are just wonderful, even though they are all somewhat too old for their roles. Since they’re all too old together, I guess you could say that everything is relative. The screenplay is by Nick Dear, and Roger Michell directed it.
The opening credits are interesting – I like how they switch back-and-forth between the Navy and Kellynch Hall. We know that Austen loved and respected the Navy, and I thought this was a nice way of introducing us to both sets of characters. I also like how we see just how loved and respected the Admiral is by his subordinates. But when we get to Kellynch, it’s just as obvious that Sir Walter doesn’t engender the same sentiments from his servants. We don’t have to listen to a verbatim reading of the Baronetage, but it’s immediately apparent that Sir Walter is an unrepentant snob. Elizabeth is possibly the single worst thing about this adaptation – she is not the elegant ice queen of the book (or P71). She lounges around, gobbling bonbons while occasionally snorting or shouting. I understand that they had very little time to show us how awful she is, but there must other ways to do it. Having Elizabeth be a fishwife doesn’t need to be one of them.
Elizabeth reminds her father about Anne and Wentworth. This is not in the book. I can try to excuse this, but it’s not easy.
While Anne is going through the household items, she pulls a paper hat out of the Navy List and, if you look very closely, it seems to be the same paper that Frederick’s Letter is from. I guess the filmmakers didn’t foresee just how obsessed some people would be and just how carefully they (we?) would scrutinize every little detail, but some of us did notice this. I know this is a low-budget production, but still…
I really love the lighting in this production. It’s not artificial – when the characters eat dinner, it’s by candlelight, and that’s it. Seeing Sir Walter preening in the semi-darkness with a butter knife is laugh-out-loud funny.
I also love the scene at Uppercross where the entire Musgrove family confides in Anne. Anne does not say a single word during this entire scene. But it shows just how much everyone trusts her. Even Mary, who spends most of her time thinking and talking about herself, trusts Anne.
One of my favorite scenes in the entire film is the first time that Anne and Frederick see each other for the first time since the year ’06. Frederick walks into the room, and we get a close-up of Anne’s hand grasping the chair as if for dear life. This is an incredibly powerful scene. We feel the tension, even though no one has said anything of substance. Later on, after Mary tells Anne that Frederick says she is so altered that he wouldn’t recognize her, we see Anne before her mirror, looking at her reflection and seeing just how worn-0ut she looks. This is just about the most heart-breaking 5 minutes of film I have ever seen. Once again, there is very little dialogue, but Root is such a good actress that none is really necessary.
I like the way the Long Walk is treated. We see Anne bringing up the rear, with Frederick looking back at her periodically. It’s a good build-up to the close-up of him helping her get into the Crofts’ carriage. It is so much more powerful than it was in P71. It’s truly as gripping a scene as it is in the book. I’m not thrilled that Nick Dear gave away Frederick’s speech about how compliments to the Navy would encourage him to get married. When I read the book after seeing the movie I was surprised that these words were actually Frederick’s, meaning that they do work coming from Sophy, but I’m not sure why Nick Dear had Sophy say them in the first place.
Louisa’s accident is done very well. She’s higher up on the stairs than she was in P71 so we can have a better perspective on just how dangerous her actions are. In real life, a lot of accidents appear to be in slow motion for the victims, and it is here too. You can see it happening, but you know that there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Unfortunately, this scene reminds me of a problem that I have with this production, and that is the use of first names. First names are used so often here that, when Frederick refers to Anne by hers in the aftermath of Louisa’s accident, it doesn’t have nearly the same impact as it does in the novel. But Hinds is a good enough actor that we can see the panic in his face when Louisa falls and also relief when Anne says she will stay. But Mary serves as comic relief when she whines and cries that she should stay instead of Anne – trust Mary to find a way to take someone else’s accident and make it all about her.
The segue from the rain and windows at Uppercross to the rain and windows at Bath is very, very well done. Once again, no words are needed to show that Anne’s life truly is quiet and confined. It’s all there on the screen.
I love the scenes in Bath. The sterile whiteness of Elizabeth’s drawing room is so appropriate. She is a cold woman, and she lives in a cold house. Perfect.
I’m not sure why we don’t get to see Anne learn about Louisa and Benwick via Mary’s letter. Perhaps it’s because there wasn’t enough time? Who knows.
Having an “homage” to the “cancelled chapters” was, I think, a nice addition to the film and it was done well. It shows me that Dear and Michell did their homework and know the book and its backstory well. I was impressed. It doesn’t feel like a tacked-on section because, when I went home and read the book, I was surprised to see that this scene does not appear in the final version of the book. (I hope everyone who reads the book gets a chance to read these cancelled chapters. They will make you appreciate the published ending of the book that much more)
The Mr. Elliot/Mrs. Smith subplot is lacking here. Mr. Elliot’s motivations have been changed because his financial situation has been changed. In the book, he is rich and he is greedy for more. In the film, he’s poor and needs the money rather than just wanting it. That’s a big difference, and not one that really works for me.
The ending of this movie is, in my not-so-humble opinion, almost perfection. The constancy conversation is well done, and we can see Frederick struggling to hear what Anne and Harville are saying. When Frederick comes back into the room to give Anne his Letter, his really does look at her with “eyes of glowing entreaty,” just the way he does in the book. I really love how they read the letter together — yes, it’s a little confusing, but so are everyone’s emotions at this point, so I find no fault with this tactic whatsoever. Besides, I know the Letter by heart now, so I just recite it along with them. I know the circus isn’t universally popular, but I really like it. I like the way we can see that, after all the years of separation, Anne and Frederick are finally together, even surrounded by all that chaos. Seeing them together, on board their own ship, is just beautiful. Unfortunately, what keeps the ending from being absolutely perfect is having Sir Walter say “You want to marry Anne? Whatever for?” in response to Frederick asking for her hand at the card party. That really does not work for me.
I mentioned before that I don’t like the way Elizabeth is portrayed, but that’s not necessarily Phoebe Nicholls’ fault. I am not a fan of Sam West as Mr. Elliot – he’s an excellent actor, but I just don’t think he’s attractive enough to be Mr. Elliot. Other than Mr. Elliot, I adore the cast. Yes, they’re pretty much all too old, but they’re all so good in their roles that I can’t hold their ages against them. Amanda Root is just outstanding as Anne. She goes from worn-out to glowing very well. Obviously, a lot of the credit has to go to the hair and make-up department, but Root’s acting cannot be dismissed. Ciarán Hinds is not conventionally handsome, but he has a je ne sais quoi that makes him a perfect Captain Wentworth in my eyes. The secondary characters are terrific too – Corin Redgrave is just perfect as Sir Walter, and I also love Susan Fleetwood’s Lady Russell. Sophie Thompson is hilarious as Mary, and Simon Russell-Beale is very, very good as her long-suffering husband. The Crofts are divine, as are the elder Musgroves. The Musgrove girls are also good; I am a big fan of Victoria Hamilton, and she is quite good as Henrietta. As for Emma Roberts’ Louisa, I don’t know her at all, but she’s quite good here. They were both young and flighty, and managed to do it without any of the incessant giggling we had in P71.
Unfortunately, this adaptation isn’t very well-known outside of Fans of Jane. It’s not as famous as P&P95 or S&S95 or even the Paltrow Emma. There are some copies of the DVD that spell Austen’s name with an “I”, and there is one in particular that has actors who aren’t even in the movie on the cover. Here are the four most common covers for the DVD. The second-from-the-left is referred to as “the Nibbler.” Open the link and you’ll see why. The music is just wonderful, even though Chopin’s compositions are too late for the period in question. Unfortunately, nobody ever thought to release a soundtrack CD, but you can recreate it by buying a CD of Chopin’s preludes.
All in all, I can say without hesitation that P95 is an almost-perfect adaptation. I own two copies (neither one is the Nibbler); one of them has Ciarán Hinds’ autograph and I keep it in a separate place from my other DVDs. Hinds was in a play on Broadway back in 2008 (The Seafarer) and I did a very touristy thing by hanging outside the stage door to get his autograph. I also got a picture of the two of us that is my cell phone’s wallpaper. The other people waiting outside that theater were there for David Morse, so I had Ciarán all to myself. It was wonderful.
As an aside, several years ago, some fans of Persuasion and this film came together to create a “Rocky Horror”-type script for P95. It’s a lot of fun, especially if you do it with a group of similarly warped individuals.