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Costume Drama Thursday: Persuasion

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I may have mentioned it before, but it bears repeating: Persuasion is my favorite of Jane Austen’s novels. And to love it as much as I do, it’s amazing to me that there’s ever been an adaptation that I’ve enjoyed.

What happens when we listen to others instead of our heart? After Anne Elliot heeds the advice of her dearest friend and is persuaded to break off her engagement to Frederick Wentworth, happiness eludes her. Eight years later, Anne remains unmarried, and her father’s spendthrift ways have brought her family down materially in the world. When a newly wealthy Frederick returns from the Napoleonic Wars, Anne realizes her feelings remain unchanged. But will Frederick forgive her and offer Anne a second chance at love?

Why do I love Persuasion so much? Well, to begin with, I was twenty-seven years old the first time I read it—the same age as Anne. For another reason, I, too, fell in love at a young age; and while I was never engaged to him (we never even dated or had a relationship beyond friendship, no matter how much I wished differently), I also experienced the heartbreak of losing that first love. And while, after a few years, I realized he wasn’t the right man for me, that it never would have worked between the two of us, I’ve always harbored the fantasy of one day seeing him again and having him tell me that he’s still in love with me after all these years (no, it’s no coincidence that I have two novels published with this theme—and an idea for another one in the new contemporary proposal I’m working on). And, finally, what’s not to love about Frederick Wentworth?

After reading the book for the first time in 1998, it was time to watch the movie. I expected to be disappointed, because I knew a less-than-two-hour-long movie version could not possibly live up to how much I love the book. But color me shocked when I was able to forgive the filmmakers’ changes/deletions/additions . . . and I actually fell in love with the story that much more due to the way the film (and the main actors, especially Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds) pays tribute and honor to the source material.

Persuasion, while short, is the most emotionally mature of Austen’s novels—probably because she was older when she wrote it and had experienced more of life. It has one of the most romantic scenes in all of literature—when Frederick overhears Anne’s “loving longest when all hope is gone” conversation with Captain Harville and then writes her The Letter:

So it was with some trepidation that I watched the new adaptation of Persuasion during the Complete Jane Austen series on PBS’s 2008 Masterpiece Classics season. And my fears turned out to be well founded. Here are some of the comments I posted two years ago combined with a look at how the 1995 version differs:

1. Amanda Root vs. 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, as Sally Hawkins’s Anne does in the 2008 version. Anne has some spunk, some personality, some backbone—which is the way Amanda Root portrayed her in the 1995 version. Anne’s forbearance 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 was the director’s fault in the 2008 version, but there seemed to be no sign of life in Sally Hawkins’s eyes at any point in time in the movie. Even in the end, she looked like a dead fish when Frederick kissed 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. In the 1995 version, the changes in Anne’s complexion, in her looks, are clear throughout the movie—as are those in her attitude and demeanor; this doesn’t happen in the 2008 version. And never, not once, in the 1995 version does Amanda Root turn with a dead-eyed expression and stare at the camera.

2. Direction/Cinematography: I read somewhere that the 2008 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. Maybe it’s considered old-fashioned now, but the 1995 version was filmed with steady-cams and wide, sweeping views of the scenery/characters—as most theatrical-release historical movies were made at the time.

3. Ciaran Hinds vs. 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, Rupert Penry-Jones 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” Frederick 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?). Of course, maybe if we’d gotten to see more of RPJ in the Royal Navy uniform, it might have softened me toward him. (And yes, I know it’s not historically accurate for Frederick to be going around in his uniform on land—especially when he’s paid off and no longer has a ship; but still, Ciaran Hinds wears the uniform quite well.)

4. 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. The 1995 version, for some reason, changed the backstory behind Mr. Elliot’s and Mrs. Smith’s connection (never really understood it, but it wasn’t all that important to the story). But in the 2008 version, 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 “loving longest when all hope is gone” dialogue (the video clip above, from the 1995 version) to two snippets in a conversation with Benwick in Lyme—which Frederick 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. Which leads me straight into . . .

5. The Absolutely Hacked-up, Mangled, Not-right Ending: I’ve already gotten into some of this above. Let me start this out by saying that the only thing I don’t like about the ending of the 1995 version of the movie is that Anne and Frederick don’t kiss as they sail off into the sunset (which, since the crew is scrubbing the deck and cleaning the cannons, it should actually be sunrise, not sunset). Most of the newer adaptations of historical novels to film do bless us with a kiss at the end—so I was expecting that in the 2008 version. But when I heard the “loving longest when all hope is gone” lines dropped into an insignificant throw-away conversation, 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—and it’s a scene that the 1995 version got as right as the filmmakers could possibly get it. 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 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 it says that he buys her a house (even if it is Kellynch Hall)! Sure, the book doesn’t say that they sailed off into the sunset together, either, but within months of when this book ends, 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 Sophy 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. (And don’t get me started on how vulgar the waltz was considered in England in 1814.) 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 the 2008 version of Persuasion than anything else about it.

Kiss her, for Pete’s sake!

So, the 1995 version of Persuasion remains squarely at the top of my list of favorite costume dramas. Have you seen Persuasion? What are your thoughts on it? on the different versions?

  1. Thursday, September 16, 2010 7:26 am

    I absolutely love the 95 version as well, but for those friends of mine who haven’t read the book, they like the 2008 version ~ mainly the ‘romanticized’ version of it.

    I own both copies, but love the 95 version and prefer to watch that one since I just get irritated at the botching of the newer one.


    • Thursday, September 16, 2010 8:45 am

      I bought the 2008 version on DVD—only because it came packaged with the new version of S&S that I really enjoyed, for a good price. But even when looking on YouTube for the video clip of the ending of it, I couldn’t bring myself to watch even that short clip, it annoys me so much. I’ve also found that people who haven’t read the book or who didn’t see the 1995 version (or the 1971 version, which sticks even closer to the book but in that old BBC, *staged*-for-TV style) really enjoyed the 2008 version. But they don’t know any better.

      Of course, I have a similar argument with my cousin, who loves Michael Crichton’s book Timeline and can’t stand the movie because of all the liberties the filmmakers took with the story/characters. I watched the movie first and loved it—and then couldn’t get into the book because I loved the characters/story the way they were in the movie. So, if he can put up with me, I guess I can put up with everyone who likes the 2008 version of Persuasion.


      • Sylvia M. permalink
        Thursday, September 16, 2010 9:26 am

        What do you think of Anne’s green plaid dress in P 1971? Isn’t it awful? One thing I noticed about P 1971 is how all the houses are obviously sets and there is no music during the film. The quiet is hard to sit still through sometimes. I suppose that’s really how it was back then. We are so used to hearing the hum of the computers, refrigerator, ice maker, faucets, cars going by, airplanes overhead that we don’t think about how silent it probably really was back then.

        I pretty much agree with everything you said about P 2007. That Bath marathon (shudder), Mrs. Smith’s miracle of being able to walk (huh?), Anne re-setting her nephew’s collar bone, I could go on and on. My favorite part of the whole film is when Anne is standing in Mary’s dining area and we first see Captain Wentworth step into the light of the doorway. The music changes and it’s a breath holding scene until he exits. I do like his parting word of “Ladies…” and that little smile. Other than that the film is quite frustrating. I love the 1995 version ,but wish the BBC would do a four hour one with younger actors. I vote for Richard Armitage and Lucy Brown. Emma Pierson would make a good Elizabeth, but she’s actually younger than Lucy by two years. Mary could be played by Ruby Bentall.


  2. Thursday, September 16, 2010 9:59 am

    The 1971 version of Persuasion, very much like all of the other BBC adaptations of classic literature made between around that time and 1994, all have more of a theater feel than a cinematic feel. That’s why the 1995 version of P&P was such a game changer—because it was filmed on location, without a marked difference in the quality of the camera work/lighting/focus from outdoors to indoors.

    And yes, that green-plaid dress was horrid. The hairstyles were pretty bad, too—kind of a hybrid Regency-style updo mixed with a late 1960s beehive.


  3. Thursday, September 16, 2010 5:18 pm

    I’m probably in the minority here, but I really didn’t care for P95. Half the time I was scratching my head, and the kiss with the circus or whatever it was in the background was…um…I don’t know. My brothers, who all love JA’s films, laughed through this one.

    Maybe it was because I wasn’t familiar w/the story vs. P&P and S&S, so I spent the whole time straining to figure out what was going on. But this wasn’t a favorite for me.


  4. Rosie permalink
    Monday, November 22, 2010 2:17 pm

    I think that this comparison to the 1995 and 2007 versions of “PERSUASION” is a bit of a joke. Neither version is completely faithful to Austen’s novel – especially the endings to both versions. Both versions made the mistake of adhering to Austen’s portrayal of William Elliot as a rake. And both leading actresses and actors were superb. And Sally Hawkins did not sit around and pout.


  5. Monday, February 28, 2011 5:48 am

    Despite its faults, P95 is my favorite of all the Austen adaptations. I saw it before reading the book, and I honestly can’t say that P07 would have made me want to read the book. P07 had a fine cast and it had a ton of potential, but it just fell flat for me. I am working on a project wherein I’ve read all of Austen novels in the order in which they were published and then watched the adaptations, also in order. I just finished P71, which is how I found your site.

    I live in the US, but I own the original UK version of P07. It has scenes that were cut out of the PBS broadcast — about 7-10 minutes’ worth.


  6. Sunday, July 10, 2011 9:09 am

    the running down the streets of Bath was daft indeed. [bit late in the conversation but as doing some work on Jane Austen for my MA do occasional scout arounds…]



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