Of course, one of my all-time favorite films is a version of a Jane Austen novel. While I love both of the most famous versions of Pride and Prejudice, and Emma Thompson’s lovely Sense and Sensibility (never mind my favorite version of Emma: the wonderfully witty 90’s update, Clueless), this novel and this film adaptation are my absolutely favorites of all Jane’s works. The book is quiet, understated and filled with a regretful longing that I didn’t quite understand the first time I read it as a teenager. As a grown woman, it makes much more sense to me and rings with more truth than any of her other, “happier” novels. Of course, this book has its own happy ending, but the suffering that Anne and Wentworth must endure to arrive at that happy place is much more moving and realistic than the lighthearted banter of her earlier works. This is a novel written by a grown-up, for grown-ups, about what really matters in love: the deep connection of understanding between two people.
The movie, which was shot entirely using natural lighting, minimal make-up and realistic costumes, emphasizes this more adult drama. It is understated, not glamorous. Anne’s world feels inescapably real, and therefore much more powerful than the gorgeous mansion-and-ball-gown worlds portrayed in better-funded Hollywood films. Watching this version, I am constantly thinking: I bet that’s exactly how it looked or felt to be there. What a lovely gift that is, in an industry where flash is usually valued for more than substance.
The Basic Plot: Anne Elliot is the underappreciated middle sister in a wealthy family fallen on (somewhat) hard times. While everyone in her family relies on her common sense and thoughtfulness to help them, none of the really see Anne for the gift she is. Years before the movie opens, Anne has had a chance at real love, with a sailor named Fredrick Wentworth. But as he was young and poor, she followed her family’s advice (particularly that of her mother’s best friend, Lady Russell), and turned down the match. She has regretted this ever since. When the film begins, Anne’s family are about to leave their stately home to “retrench” at the seaside town of Bath, due to her father’s immoderate spending. The house is rented by none other than Fredrick’s older sister’s husband, bringing Fredrick and Anne into one another’s company for the first time in many years. How the romance is rekindled, despite Anne’s shattered spirit and Captain Wentworth’s bitterness, is the pleasure of the story.
Moments to Watch For: One of my favorite scenes in the film comes when Anne is finally having dinner with her family, friends and Captain Wentworth (after her disappointing previous attempt). Captain Wentworth has just zinged Anne in the heart with his comments about having “no wife in the year six,” which is bad enough, but then the luminous Fiona Shaw, as Admiral Croft’s wife and Wentworth’s sister, begins to describe her life with the Admiral and her love for him. Though the moment is all Mrs. Croft’s, the pain of what she has missed is all Anne’s, and the whole scene is beautifully heartbreaking. Here’s a reason to miss a love lost, rather than the usual “I don’t know, I just loved him” that most stories give us. It isn’t just love that Anne has rejected, but an entire life, and that makes it all the harder for her to listen.
Actors to Love: both Anne, played by Amanda Root, and Fredrick Wentworth, played by Ciaran Hinds, look like people you might know. Neither are exceptionally good looking (take note, all you producers of Jane Eyre!), yet we long to see them together and are thrilled by the sexual heat that each tiny gesture between them generates. That’s because both these veteran actors are masterfully good at conveying a world of emotions buried just beneath the surface through quick glances, downcast eyes, slight smiles. These are actors who were cast because they could play the characters, not because they could draw in the box office dollars. Fiona Shaw is, as I said before, lovely. The younger actors playing the Musgrove sisters are just attractive enough to fuel Anne’s jealousy, without being so beautiful as to make it unbelievable that Fredrick would choose her over them (take note, all you producers of Pride and Prejudice — Elizabeth is supposed to be LESS beautiful than her older sister). Even Anne’s annoying sister Mary is wonderful — her pouting about no one believing she’s really ill to her almost instant transformation to gluttony seconds later is done with just enough humor and no irony by actress Sophie Thompson. Perfection!
Persuasion is a very quiet film: you will have to listen closely, watching for the small gestures that make the film so moving and so beautiful. But it is well worth it. I’m not sure there’s a more truly romantic movie out there, and it’s by far the best costume drama I’ve ever seen. Give it a try, and let me know what you think!