The most recent version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion was out last year, I believe, on PBS (a year earlier in the UK?); I watched it, I know I did, and promptly forgot about it. That’s telling. I read a blogged review, comparing it to the 1995 film, and decided to watch it again.
I didn’t hate it, which surprised me given how much the Ciarán Hinds/Amanda Root film means to me; I obviously didn’t love it, either, either time. My main concerns were fidelity to the story and casting of Anne and Captain Wentworth – especially Wentworth. Who on earth could ever fill Ciarán Hinds’s boots?
They chose for Anne Sally Hawkins. I don’t remember her from anything else, which in the world of BBC drama is a little surprise; nearly everyone always looks familiar (like half the rest of this cast). She was – and perhaps this was intentional, and the makeup and hair and costume – not too attractive; I’ll come back to that, in terms of comparison. She has a nice enough voice, a hairstyle which she must have done something dreadful to deserve, and to be honest some rather stark moles on her neck which were rather distracting when she was shown from behind for the first time. (What was the style for fingernails in this period? Anne’s were very short. Anyway.) She was all right; she did not disgrace the role. But Amanda Root wins by a mile, and it was only a six furlong race.
Amanda Root started her film as a dowdy, pale, dampened little wren of a thing. She always makes me think of a bird: great huge dark eyes, soft and gentle and a mix of timid and brave. Then Frederick comes back into her life. Even if things had not mended between them, this might have changed her life anyway, his return: closure, I suppose, or simply proving to her that since she could survive the very worst thing that could happen to her, things must take a turn for the better now. She begins to brighten, and straighten, and to change my metaphor begins to resemble a flower that has finally been watered after sitting parched on a table for a while. By the end, she is lovely and aglow. I know very well that it’s makeup, artful lighting, an improved hairstyle, and Amanda Root’s great talent that does it – but it’s subtle enough and so beautifully done that it looks completely natural, a woman winning her life back. The butterfly transformation of Anne is one of my favorite things about one of my favorite movies.
(According to imbd: “The sage-green Spencer with white cuffs Amanda Root (Anne Elliot) wears on the street in Bath is the same costume Sally Hawkins (Anne Elliot) wears in the final scene of Persuasion (2007).” Huh. I’ll have to stick it back in the player before I return it to Netflix; I did think she looked better in the last scenes, as she ought, but I didn’t recognize the dress. )
For Captain Wentworth, they would have been hard pressed to find anyone more different from CH than Rupert Penry-Jones; too young, blond, bland if rather handsome. All wrong. He cut a fine figure in the suit they put him in (no uniform? Really!), looked the part of the Regency gentleman, but didn’t have the presence for Captain Wentworth. No. Again, not bad – but not Frederick. Also, in the scene where he gets to ride that pretty black, he looked like an awfully heavy-handed rider. I don’t know as much as I should, but he seemed to be jerking the animal’s mouth about too much.
Ciarán Hinds was magnificent. This was the first thing I saw him in, and I was his thenceforward. He’s not pretty. He’s not really classically handsome. He has fine eyes, a wonderful mouth, and cheekbones to die for. He’s wonderful. He looks magnificent throughout the story in his uniform (these sailors are the finest men of England!) and never even looks silly in the hat. There’s something about that mouth, flexible and mobile, that makes my knees weaken, and his eyes smoulder (I need that “u” in there for him) with anger or passion equally effectively. He played bitter beautifully, painfully – that first time his Frederick and Anne see each other was a shock to both of them, obviously like a knife blow out of nowhere. And he played cautiously optimistic beautifully. And of course he played unbelievingly happy perfectly. I fell head over heels in love with both Frederick Wentworth and Ciarán Hinds, and never recovered.
I was excited about the presence of Anthony Head – he’s everywhere! And still not using “Stewart”! – and he was all right as well; angry oblivious Sir Walter Elliot rather than foppish jackass oblivious Sir Walter Elliot (the latter played by Corin Redgrave – brother of Lynn and Vanessa). The anger made the character a little harder to take than the foppishness, somehow. One thing I’ll say for carrot haired foppish jackass Sir Walter Elliot: he made an impression. I can’t really say Anthony (Stewart) Head did, except for having been Giles. Shame.
Lady Frickin’ Russell was here played by Alice Krige. I know, it’s freaky of me, but she will always be the Borg Queen to me.
So this was kind of typecasting. She was quietly evil, and not one of the parts of the film I objected to. Hate the character, never the actress. “I am no matchmaker, as you well know.” Well, no, Lady Frickin’ Russell, you’re a matchbreaker. Cow.
I hated this Mary with all my heart. I hated Mary even more than the camera work. In ’95 she (Sophie Thompson) was a terrible, pathetic little tyrannical mouse of a woman who remained funny to watch even when I was ready to slap her hard for her behavior. She was brilliantly played. This Mary, Amanda Hale, was awful. She scuttled about constantly looking, to be blunt, like she had to pee. The faces she made – sucking on a lemon never did that much damage – were painful to watch. I could understand Amanda Root’s Anne’s patience and tolerance; I felt toward her Mary pity and a deep relief that I didn’t have to deal with her. She was pathetic, and her cruelty was a result of her self-centeredness. She was oblivious – she feared being slighted, and kept being slighted, and could not understand why, and fought back in the only ineffective ways she could think of. New Mary seemed more intentionally vicious. I could not fully accept Sally Hawkins’ Anne putting up with it; ’95 Anne was put upon, long-suffering, and did it because she had no real choice and because it was for Family. ’07’s Anne was more abused. Rather than only wanting to slap Mary now and then, I wanted from the beginning to slap her until she went away. Permanently. Hated her.
Mr. Musgrove was played by Prime Minister Green from Torchwood: Children of Earth (Nicholas Farrell). Mrs. Musgrove was Beatrice in House of Eliot, Stella Gonet (took me half the movie to figure that out).
Mrs. Clay was young and rather pretty in this version (the only person allowed to be pretty in the entire cast), as opposed to the rather plain and horsey (though still young, I suppose) Mrs. Clay in the ’95. I think I like pretty better, simply because Sir Walter was so dead set against unattractive people; this was the only thing that made a little more sense (in a way) than ’95. Although the earlier film’s rather homely Mrs. Clay would be so overjoyed at being paid court by someone as handsome as the young Mr. William Elliot she might well give up the near probability of a marriage to Sir Walter for a long-term dalliance with William.
Mr. William Elliot was Brutus of Rome, Tobias Menzies. He was, of course, very good – he is a superb actor. He had a little joggle he did when straightening from a bow that was a nice little character element. . . but he didn’t get the latent evil across like ’95’s William Elliot did (Samuel West). That Mr. Elliot was pretty and smooth – slick – and completely untrustworthy, and Anne felt it even though no one else in the family got it. This Mr. Elliot was actually a little like a more effete Brutus – a generally nice person, as far as we know except by hearsay, but weak. I believe in ’95 we – and Anne – actually saw him meeting with Mrs. Clay. Which made more sense.
Captain Harville in ’95 was played by Robert Glenister. ‘Nuff said. I’ve carried a torch for his brother Philip since I saw Vanity Fair, and I’m very fond of Robert from this even more than from “Hustle”. I don’t really recall ’07’s Harville…
The Misses Musgrove were, forgive me, just not very pretty, and their meanness toward Mary wasn’t as sympathetic as the ’95 girls’ was. The latter hated her too, but they came off as young and sick of her – too young to exercise proper manners. These two just seemed mean.
Elizabeth looked far too old, Anne looked much worse than she should – everyone looked like they’d been up all night. In the rain. I applaud a natural look for actors in a period piece – but it simply didn’t fit the story to have these people be so unattractive. It made it funnier than it should have been for Sir Walter to be talking about one unattractive face after another in Bath.
Why was Charles and Mary’s son out so late when he broke his arm/collarbone? It was quite dark out. And did we really need the *snap* of the bone being popped back in place?
I disliked the direction and production of the movie rather a lot. Throughout the film Anne would look up at poignant moments in the plot and give the camera long meaningful looks, breaking through the fourth wall. It didn’t fit. It annoyed me. And then there was what I found to be purely idiotic camera work – uneven organic handheld one moment, jouncy and annoying, and the next moment smooth and automated. There was one scene that panned up and came to a crisp, computerized stop, which was so at odds with the occasional home movie vibe that I got more and more irritated. In another scene William Elliot took step backward and the cameraman very obviously stepped forward to follow. The culmination of annoyance with the camera work was when during the walk to the Hayters’ Anne collapsed – the camera must have been attached to her somehow because it followed her down to the ground with jerky motions as if it was falling too. I hated it. They did the exact same thing in Mad Men, in the episode where Don meets the bohemian troupe of wealthy gadabouts, and collapses from the heat or his high blood pressure or malnutrition or whatever it was. The camera went down with him, and hit the ground with him focused on his face, and it was strange and ugly and jarring – and it fit. It very thoroughly did not fit in Persuasion.
Most of all I hated the changes. I’ve learned a lot over the years; LotR was a training ground on how to deal with changes made to a beloved story to get it on film. I really do understand that some changes must be made. It’s when someone goes stark staring stupid and makes alterations that make no sense whatever in any context that every particle of my purist inner self comes out in force. (*cough*Return of the King*cough*) For example: Where did that whole confession of Frederick to Harry of his renewed love for Anne and his relief that Louisa is looking elsewhere come from?? It’s been a while since I read the book, but that seemed completely wrong, too easy, and ill timed. And to what purpose? So that some sadistic director could send a couple of actors out to be drenched in spray while adding a scene to the story which turned it into screwball-Astaire-and-Rogers mixed-up oh-no-s/he’s-misunderstood-that stuff?
While it was a nice little conceit that the ’07 film used Anne keeping a diary as a way of presenting information, this Mary, and this Elizabeth, and even these Musgrove girls, made it seem extremely perilous to me for her to do so without six locks on the book and their keys hidden in six different locations, primarily on her person. Every one of them was the sort of person who would poke around in one’s room while one was elsewhere, “accidentally” find one’s diary, read it without a second thought, and take one to task for anything written there they might disagree with. The concept of Anne’s privacy meant nothing to them – Anne was their lackey to do with as they would, not a person.
In the reviews I saw elsewhere there were two main themes: 1) for God’s sake why did Anne have that conversation with Harville somewhere Frederick couldn’t hear them?? That made no sense. And b) Admiral and Mrs. Croft were deeply missed. This version’s were fine, lovely people – well, lovely in personality, as Mrs. Croft (Marion Bailey) was . . . not lovely. The roles were filled quite adequately. But ’95’s Crofts were so very much in love, so very fond of Frederick, and such really marvelous people with such marvelous chemistry with each other, with Ciarán Hinds, and with Amanda Root that they – Fiona Shaw and John Woodvine – like ’95’s Anne and Frederick (and Mary and Charles and Harville and Benwick and Musgroves) were unmatchable.
But what on earth were they thinking to take the discussion between Anne and Harville and move it elsewhere, where they spoke in private and were not overheard? Not only did this cause them to change the first line of The Letter – how could they alter “I can listen no longer in silence” to “I can bear this no longer”?? So much less impact – but it also made the rest of the letter a little clairvoyant. Gee, however did Frederick know Anne had been talking about fidelity and constancy and loving without hope?
Possibly the worst changes were the end scenes in Bath. First of all, Anne’s dear, crippled friend Mrs. Smith comes running – running! – up to her to tell her how awful William Elliot is. Anne was more out of breath than she was. All hail the curative properties of the waters of Bath! Now – Mrs. Clay was intended to be Elliot’s mistress? Did she know this? Did Jane Austen know this? I don’t think so … At least, I don’t remember it being said straight out like that. Could well be wrong. There follows more running than has probably ever been in any other Jane Austen adaptation ever, as Anne jogs hither and yon trying to catch up to Frederick. Because of course when someone’s just proposed to you in one of the most romantic letters in the world (or what was one of the most romantic letters before they futzed with it) you really want to wind up in front of him gasping for breath with your ugly ringlets sweat-plastered to your face.
All right, I thought, let’s see how they do in the climax as compared to ’95. Not well, as it turned out. Now, granted, she was much shorter than he – but Amanda Root is a lot shorter than Ciarán Hinds,
so there’s no real excuse as to why he took so very long to get down there to finally kiss her. He bent, and she lifted her face to him, and … he stayed bent, and her face stayed lifted, and her lips sort of opened and closed in anticipation. Like a fish’s. It (like so much else in this version) wasn’t pretty.
And then Anne’s being brought blindfolded in a carriage – what must the servants have thought?! – apparently to their new home (which to me looked like a mouldering ruin, but what do I know), and they are so excited they do the dance of joy… Truly, though – they just … begin to dance? That was … silly. It didn’t work with either of their characters, at all.
The Ciarán Hinds/Amanda Root version made so much more sense, used everything, from lighting to makeup to storytelling to every ounce of talent its very talented stars had, so much better to tell a moving, bitter-then-sweet story. It never had that feel of screwball-Astaire-and-Rogers etc. feel this one did; this was awkwardly presented. It was simply a much better movie. I’ll be forgetting about the latest version again very quickly.