A new adaptation of Persuasion will air on Masterpiece PBS tonight. Based on Jane Austen’s 1817 novel, its themes of patience, fortitude, and second chances ring true to today’s audience even after two hundred years. The story of Anne Elliot, a twenty-seven-year-old unmarried daughter of an aristocrat who was advised seven years earlier to decline an offer of marriage from a dashing young Royal Navy officer she loved because his social standing was not on par with her family’s rank, is one of Austen’s most poignant. When Wentworth reappears in her life as an established, wealthy, and eligible suitor, every unmarried young woman in the neighborhood takes notice. How the two react to this uncomfortable situation and work past their regret and disappointment is one of classic literature’s most endearing stories.
Adapting Austen’s story to the screen takes a highly sensitive writer and director. This new ITV/Masterpiece PBS production of Persuasion is the first installment of The Complete Jane Austen series this year on PBS which will also include new productions of three other new adaptations of her major novels, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Sense and Sensibility, and a biopic Miss Austen Regrets. There will also be an encore presentation of Emma (1996) and Pride and Prejudice (1995) to complete the lineup. This new Persuasion has a promising ensemble of accomplished British actors and crew to support Austen’s narrative. Being both a tragedy and a comedy, one really never knows how it will be handled.
There have been other screen adaptations of Austen’s classic love story, notably Persuasion (1995) a feature film starring Amanda Root as Anne Elliot and Ciarán Hinds as Captain Frederick Wentworth. Written by Nick Dear and directed by Roger Mitchell, it was produced by the BBC and was intended to air on TV, but later premiered as a theatrical movie. It won awards and the acclaim of the Jane Austen community for its gentle love story deftly told. I can still re-watch it in a heartbeat and be in awe of the fabulous acting, costumes, scenery, and sensitivity to Austen’s original novel.
While it has been twelve years since it released, Persuasion (1995) casts a giant shadow for Jane Austen fans coloring their opinion of any new production. The screenwriter of Persuasion (2007), Simon Burke, took a different approach to his interpretation by accentuating the division between the two main characters. Anne (Sally Hawkins) is even more reserved and quiet, and Captain Wentworth (Ruppert Penry-Jones) even stiffer and unlikable than Austen’s origins, or the 1995 interpretation. The director Adrian Shergold played this up, even more, by often having Anne not speak, but use facial expressions and voice-overs to convey her emotions and feelings. The chemistry between the two principal characters continues to simmer and their eventual rekindled romance does spark some heat, but at what cost? The final scene when the lovers realize that they were meant to be together is one of Austen’s most memorable. The letter that Captain Wentworth writes to Anne to declare his love is frequently quoted and often discussed.
“I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in
Swoon. The “you pierce my soul” line could melt any romantic skeptic. Unfortunately, in this new adaptation, Anne reads the letter and then runs through the streets of Bath to find Captain Wentworth. This madcap marathon race by the heroine was comical and totally broke the romantic tension that Austen had built up to. It lost my respect as a viewer and canceled out much of the good qualities of this production that we had previously enjoyed.
After completing Persuasion, Jane Austen wrote in 1817 to her niece Fanny Knight and shared that her heroine Anne “is almost too good for me,” jokingly placing her estimation of her good character above her own talent. Known for her sarcasm and irony in her novels and letters, Austen ofter undervalued her own opinions and work to add levity. I wish that the writer and director had heeded Austen’s backhanded admission of her talent and listened to her advice.
I really wanted to like this one. I did! It does have a few charms to recommend. Rupert Penry-Jones is easy to look at and has a commanding presence on screen. He also got short shrift with dialogue. Shame, because his voice is glorious. The two young Musgrove sisters are a delight against an otherwise somber landscape. Amanda Hale as the snorting Mary Musgrove stole her scenes. Anthony Head’s hilarious performance as foppish Sir Walter Elliot was also stellar. He is the real star of this version of Persuasion. Shall we rename it Arrogance in his honor and call it a day?
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Cover image courtesy of ITV/Masterpiece PBS © 2007; Text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2008, Austenprose.com