Movie Review: “Persuasion” (BBC: 1995)

Persuasion is perhaps one of Jane Austen’s most personal novels.  The central idea for the story, loving someone even when hope is gone, comes from a terrible incidence in her older sister Cassandra’s life.  The young naval officer she was engaged to marry died at sea.  He wanted to seek his fortune before settling down.  Cassandra retired from society after this loss, vowing to never marry.  For many years, Cassandra kept house for Jane, while the more famous sis wrote.  Perhaps this book was a way to give her big sis a happy ending!    

Eight years ago, Anne (Amanda Root), daughter of a nobleman, Sir Walter Elliot (Corin Redgrave), fell deeply in love with Frederick Wentworth (Ciaran Hinds), brother of the local curate (preacher; pastor).  Wentworth was in the navy, and not too much older than Anne (who was just 19).  He was not from a distinguished family, and had yet to prove his merit (meaning: get rich).  Lady Russell, Anne’s neighbor (acting in lieu of her deceased mother), persuaded her to refuse Frederick’s hand.  “He had nothing but himself to recommend him,” Lady Russell comments.   

At the start of the film, Anne is 27, and considered an “old maid.”  Her father pays little attention to her, probably seeing her as another burden.  (Sir Walter spends more than is prudent.)  Though her superficial, older sister (Elizabeth) is 29, it is hinted (in the book) that she’s waiting around for a super-rich beau.  The younger sis, Mary (Sophie Thompson, sister of Emma Thompson), is a mother of two sons, and settled comfortably with a gentleman farmer, Charles Musgrove

Things get so bad financially, that Sir Walter’s lawyer suggests the Elliot family “retrench” to Bath, a resort town where they can still live respectably.  They can rent out their house (on a big estate, Kellynch Hall) to Admiral Croft, a very gentleman-like naval officer and his wife.  Anne is (visibly) upset when she hears this- Mrs. Croft is the elder sister of Frederick!  Lady Russell remembers the “disappointment,” but has no regret about it.  However, Anne is still in love with her first love.

Captain Wentworth comes to Uppercross (where Anne is staying for a time); he is introduced to all the Musgroves.  Both of the unmarried Musgrove girls, Louisa and Henrietta, seek his attention.  At a dinner, Wentworth comments to someone that Anne “was so altered that he’d hardly have known her.”  What will happen now that the tables are reversed?  Anne’s family has its good name, but very little money.  Wentworth has made a considerable fortune at sea, and is therefore a great catch for any single gal.  Anne looks weighed down by life; Wentworth is social and upbeat in all types of company.  Have his feelings changed?  How will they ever get together?

You have to remember that in Austen’s time, single people (usually) did not have long courtships or engagements.  They were often in company, so had little chance to talk alone about crucial matters (how they really feel about each other and so forth).  People usually hung out with their neighbors, cousins, and others in their social rank (when they were on vacation or in London).  It wasn’t polite to go blabbing your (true) opinions in public.  But, people did write letters- this is crucial in Persuasion.                   

The lead actors are very good at conveying their emotions, however subtle, in this film.  A lot has to be said without words, or the movie would not be true to the book or its time period.  Sophie Thompson, as Mary, is also very good (as she is in Emma).  She has some subtle comedic moments; Mary likes to create little dramas (she’s a typical bored housewife).  Another small, but notable character, is Mrs. Croft (Fiona Shaw).  Anne is drawn to her warm personality.  She is a very kind, energetic, and well-traveled older woman.  The Crofts, though they have no children, are a very loving/compatible couple (both in the book and film).  In one dinner scene she says that “we [women] none of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.”  Very true!        

Jane Austen said that the character of Anne was “almost too good to be true.”  Anne is described as capable (she nurses her injured nephew) and down-to-earth (she visits an old, sick school friend instead of visiting a high-ranking relation).  Like many Austen heroines, she likes reading, long walks, and intelligent conversations.  She is not obsessed with rank, unlike the rest of her family.  She is unbowed by the flattery of her cousin, Mr. Elliot, who heaps attention on her in Bath.  So, she’s a gal you can root for!     

The look of this film is very authentic, in my opinion.  The actors are not overly glamorous, nor do they over-act (like in some tongue-in-cheek adaptations of Jane Austen).  Yes, there are a few moments of humor, but the issue at hand is serious.  Love (and life) may pass these characters by if they don’t communicate and take some action to hook up!  Check this film out if you’re looking for an adaptation that is intelligent.  I’ve seen it several times, and consider it the best adaptation of Austen on film (aside from the Pride and Prejudice mini-series with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle).  This film gives modern audiences a view into Austen’s characters’ minds.

 

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