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Why the New *Persuasion* Falls Short

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Well, I’ve been waging an internal debate as to whether or not to blog about this, but having seen that there are some out there of similiar persuasion as I, I decided to go ahead and have my say. Some of you may or may not agree, and I’d love for you to post your comments—you won’t offend me. I know this is just a matter of opinion.

Persuasion is my favorite of Jane Austen’s six completed novels. This should come as no surprise to anyone who knows anything about my Ransome trilogy, which was partly inspired by Persuasion (and partly by Horatio Hornblower). It is by far the most mature of her work, no pun intended given that the heroine is twenty-seven when the book opens. The storytelling is tighter, the pace faster, the characters—all of the characters—better developed.

That said, I do not like the newest film version of Persuasion which aired on PBS this weekend. I know that there are lots of women out there this week just raving over it and how wonderful it was. But there are many things to which I take issue in this fiasco of a film:

1. Sally Hawkins (“Anne Elliot”): In the book, though Anne is pained by Frederick’s return after having broken her engagement to him eight years before, she does not sit around pouting all the time. She has some spunk, some personality, some backbone. She isn’t the mopey, sulking character who STARES AT THE CAMERA (for no apparent reason). Her forebearance was born out of what little self-worth she had: she turned him down, therefore who was she to begrudge him finding a suitable (if silly) wife in Louisa Musgrove? I know that much of this is the director’s fault, but there seems to be no sign of life in the actress’s eyes at any point in time in the movie. Even in the end (which I’ll get to in a minute), she looks like a dead fish when Frederick kisses her. There’s also a line in the book after she joins her family in Bath when her father remarks upon how much fresher, younger, better (don’t remember the exact adjective) she looks. But in this film, her look never changes.

    Sally Hawkins is a runny-nosed Anne Elliot . . . effective at times, but at too many others, she surrenders to a wide variety of vocal mannerisms and facial tics. At the end of the film, as she is about to kiss Wentworth (oh, come on, you always knew how it comes out), her mouth twitches like a bass zeroing in on a tasty side order of plankton as her face moves slowly toward its target. David Wiegand, San Francisco Chronicle, 1/11/08

2. Direction/Cinematography: I read somewhere that this version was filmed entirely with hand-held cameras. The jostling and shaking was more reminiscent of an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street than a BBC period piece. Then there were the times (already mentioned) when Sally Hawkins stares at the camera, sans expression, sans dialogue, which just made it creepy and annoying. Also, the scenes and cuts were so quick and short (why couldn’t the length have been extended to two hours??) that there was never a chance to just enjoy the scenery or the characters or the costumes or anything.

3. Poor Character Development: Because of the jumping from scene to scene, none of the characters are allowed to be sufficiently developed–especially the secondary characters. Where was Frederick’s jealousy over Anne seeming to become close to Benwick when in Lyme? What about Anne’s fear that Frederick was as good as engaged to Louisa when she left them all for Bath? What about Mr. Elliot—he seemed only an afterthought in this version? Lady Russell—who is the one who actually convinced Anne to break off her engagement? Admiral and Mrs. Croft? Henrietta and Charles Hayter? Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove, who treated Anne more like a daughter than her own father? Even Mary and Charles Musgrove get a short shrift in this one. This novel has some of the deepest characterization Austen ever developed. This film loses all of it.

4. Rupert Penry-Jones (“Frederick Wentworth”): I’m sorry, but some young, blond guy with no experience in his face, no sense of humor, no indication that he has anything of the sailor about him will ever be a convincing Frederick Wentworth. Certainly, he is good looking, and wears the period costumes quite well. But he reminded me more of Samuel West, who played Mr. Elliot in the 1995 version, than he did of a genuine Frederick Wentworth. I’m not so stuck on Ciaran Hinds being the “ultimate” Wentworth that I wasn’t open to the possibility of liking someone else in the role. It’ll just have to be someone other than Rupert Penry-Jones for me (Karl Urban, anyone?).

    But Penry-Jones is far too pretty to be Wentworth. He doesn’t have wisdom and pain written into the lines of his face, as did CiarΓ‘n Hinds as Wentworth in the 1995 version – indeed, he has no lines in his face. Matthew Gilbert, the Boston Globe, 1/12/08

5. Changes to the Story: I know that any adaptation of a novel is going to require some divergence from the original source material, either because of the limitations of time or to translate what makes sense on the page but won’t on-screen. But they didn’t just alter the story to fit the length of the film—they actually altered the story structure. The most glaring and heinous crime committed against the novel was the screenwriter’s decision to eliminate the most emotional and crucial scene of the book by transplanting Anne’s “we love longest when all hope is gone” dialogue to two snippets in a conversation with Benwick in Lyme—which Wentworth doesn’t even hear. The scene when Frederick overhears Anne and Capt. Harville having the conversation about women loving longest when all hope is gone is the most emotional scene Jane Austen ever wrote—and is what led Frederick to writing her the note telling her he still loved her and that hope still remained for a reconciliation. They also managed to belie the TITLE OF THE BOOK by changing it so that her father is the one who insisted she break her engagement to Frederick years ago, instead of Anne’s being persuaded by Lady Russell to do so because they were both young, he had nothing to offer, and Anne would just be a burden to him because he had no way to support her. Were they trying to imply that the Anne in the book is weak because she gave into this persuasion—that the viewing audience would only like her if she’d had to break the engagement because of her father’s insistence? That to me is a clear indication that no one involved with this project truly understands the nuances of the novel and what the whole story is about!

6. The Absolutely Hacked-up, Mangled, Not-right Ending: I’ve already gotten into some of this above. When I heard the lines from the climax of the story had been dropped into an insignificant throw-away earlier in the movie, I started getting concerned. Then, when the end finally did come, it was almost as if the filmmakers decided they hadn’t liked the way the book ended so they wrote an almost completely different ending! As I’ve said, the scene in the hotel in Bath when Frederick overhears Anne’s thinly veiled confession that she still loves him (while she’s still talking to Harville) is one of the most poignant, romantic scenes ever written in the history of romance novels! As a lover of Jane Austen’s work, and a scholar of the time period, to see Anne Elliot literally running through the streets of Bath was bordering on offensive—not to mention ridiculous, if they’d just followed the actual ending of the book. And I want you to show me where in the book that he buys her a house! Sure, it doesn’t say that they sailed off into the sunset together, either, but within months of this book, England was once again at war with France (after Bonaparte escaped from Elba—which is mentioned in the 1995 version). I don’t know that Anne would have actually sailed with him, but after the discussion in the book (and the 1995 movie) that Sophie had traveled with Admiral Croft on most of his ships, it’s a much more logical leap to see them on the deck of his ship than dancing in the front yard of a manor house. It’s totally out of character for Frederick Wentworth—his life was the Royal Navy . . . okay, maybe I’m putting a little too much of William Ransome into his character, but still. I was more disappointed with the ending of this movie more than anything else about it.

So, that’s my take on the newest film version of Persuasion. Sure, I’ll buy it when it comes out on DVD, simply because that’s my Austen fixation. And in further viewings, I might find things I like about it. But for now, the 1995 Ciaran Hinds/Amanda Root version remains firmly afixed at the top of my list of favorite Austen films.

15 Comments
  1. Tuesday, January 15, 2008 11:51 am

    Oh dear, where to start. πŸ˜‰ Kaye, you really should’ve just gone ahead and “outed” me by titling this post “I think Ruth is insane and appallingly lacking in good taste” or something along those lines. πŸ˜› πŸ™‚ I think the part of my brain that once cared about how close a film is to its source material must’ve been surgically removed (or maybe I never had it…lol). Case in point…I really enjoyed “Persuasion” Sunday night, I LOVE the 1999 “Mansfield Park,” and I adore the Keira Knightly “Pride and Prejudice” (love Keira as Lizzy, love Matthew M. as Darcy, and am NUTS about the ending).

    1. I think Wiegand is being a little harsh on poor Sally. She can’t help it if she has facial tics, can she?! LOL…however I do think that some of her performance issues/quirks are exacerbated by goofy direction…so I blame the director more than the actress. In spite of some issues (which I reference in my own very haphazardly written blog post), SH really made a very positive impression on me. I wouldn’t call her mopey, I thought she showed some flashes of backbone…if anything she was angst-ridden (well-done angst, even HALF well-done angst does tend to make a very positive impression on me, lol).

    2. I share your issues with the hand-held camera direction. Silly move IMO. As far as the time goes, I think that must be the new “standard” in period dramas…probably for cost of production reasons or something. Back in the day, all the mysteries used to be two full hours…now all of them are ninety minutes. Bummer.

    3. As to poor character development…well unfortunately only so much can be squeezed into ninety minutes. I was ok with what I got.

    4. I think Gilbert is just jealous of RPJ’s good looks. Just a guess but I think it could turn out to be true, I’m just sayin’. πŸ™‚ In RPJ’s defense I can completely buy that he could be a sailor (Ioan Gruffudd comes to mind). Karl Urban as an Austen guy is a very interesting possibility, I will say that.

    5. I need to rewatch this but I got the distinct impression from the beginnning of the film that Anne acknowledges that Lady Russell also played a role in convincing her to turn down Frederick eight years earlier. She says something to the effect of “I don’t blame you, etc…” (I wish I could watch the YouTube” clip while I was here at work…).

    6. The running thing is a little funny…but as I mentioned in my blog I just got caught up in the moment. I guess I could, scary as this is to admit, see myself in a desperate moment making an ass of myself running around in a desperate fashion. LOL! πŸ˜› And who cares that Frederick doesn’t buy her a house in the book?! That moment was FABULOUS!! πŸ™‚

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  2. Tuesday, January 15, 2008 11:52 am

    Wow…when one types in this little comment box it’s easy to lose track of how MUCH one types…haha…

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  3. Tuesday, January 15, 2008 11:58 am

    Ruth–if yours were the only blog I’d read about it, I’d have been content with the comment I left there. But I’ve read rave reviews of the film on the blogs of several other people who call themselves Austenites and afficianados of her work, who say that Persuasion is their favorite novel and they love this version, etc. So I just had to speak up!

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  4. Tuesday, January 15, 2008 12:11 pm

    Okay, I’m here to confess I’ve NEVER read a Jane Austin novel. Though I do own two that I’ve not gotten to yet. Also, I’ve only seen one movie adaptation, a very old B&W copy of Pride and Prejudice. But I have vowed to tape every episode of Masterpiece Theatre’s new Jane Austin series and watch them. Not having read the books or seen the other movies, I don’t suppose I will know bad from good. But now I’ll be watching for creepy camera staring. πŸ™‚

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  5. Tuesday, January 15, 2008 12:43 pm

    Erica, it’ll be fascinating to hear your reaction when you watch this one, since you don’t already know the story. I hope I haven’t prejudiced you against it!

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  6. Wednesday, January 16, 2008 1:54 pm

    Confession: I didn’t see it. That said, it sounds like they were trying too hard to be modern with the cinematography (how sp?)–I can’t stand the handheld camera style, and those types of movies make me seasick. I can only watch them for a short while before turning them off. It upsets my delicate disposition πŸ™‚

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  7. Lori permalink
    Friday, January 18, 2008 12:06 pm

    Kaye, Ruth told me I had to read your take on Persuasion. She’s already laughed at me for actually liking the 1995 version, but her jaw is going to drop b/c I have to agree with several of your points. The lack of character development was disappointing, but I’m sure that was a time issue (as Ruth noted). Some of the shaky camera work was distracting and Sally Hawkins staring at the camera was freaking me out too.

    I was disappointed by the whole scene when Anne practically runs into Frederick and that kiss did nothing for me. I kept thinking ‘can’t we just see Rupert’s face…at least he’s hot!’

    I COMPLETELY agree with you about the ‘we love longest’ scene. I think that erased so much depth and tension from the movie. Maybe people who don’t know the story aren’t bothered by this, but it left me wondering exactly what finally prompted Frederick to write the letter to Anne in this version.

    However, I do agree with Ruth about Lady Russell’s ‘persuasion.’ They definitely leaned more toward it being her father’s doing, but it seemed that she acknowledged Lady Russell had a big role as well.

    That said, I also suffer from Ruth’s affliction of being too mesmerized by beautiful locations, music, costumes, and especially hot male actors to be upset by plot changes, so I did not entirely hate this version. It’s more like I feel it was lacking from some poor script and direction choices.

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  8. Wednesday, January 23, 2008 6:15 pm

    Ok…I am rewatching this since my dvd came from Amazon yesterday (yay!). I have been curious to pay closer attention to the whole Lady Russell thing…and I just got to the part where Anne has discovered that Admiral Croft is renting the house. Lady Russell comes and asks what is the matter, and Anne explains that Croft is Frederick’s brother-in-law, then LR goes off on how her father would’ve never sanctioned the match, and Anne says she recalls her father was not alone in his sentiments, and then LR says she would’ve been failing in her duty as Anne’s godmother if she hadn’t counseled against it. Wow what a horrible run-on. LOL!

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  9. Austronas permalink
    Tuesday, January 29, 2008 12:22 am

    Good post!! It is simply superb.I was really looking forward to this because Persuasion is one of my favorites.I posted about this too.You discussed very clear about persuasion.

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  10. Sunday, June 21, 2009 2:36 pm

    Just found this post – and I oh-so-agree! πŸ™‚ The 95 version of Persuasion is by far my favorite, and I was so disappointed in the new one.

    Reading all of these posts is making want to watch all my movies again!

    Jolanthe

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