Persuasion for millennials fails to convince the Janeites
Persuasion, ITV/WGBH/BBC video 2007, Netflix 2014
Director: Adrian Shergold
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Rupert Penry-Jones
By Peter Hulm
ITV's Persuasion, from 1970s actor and gritty TV director Adrian Shergold, has so many mistakes and miscalculations it might seem odd to give it a good review. Nevertheless, as a result of a touching performance by Sally Hawkins, and a few deft inventions and clever cinematography, it deserves praise and perhaps your time. It may not be Austen but it is still absorbing.
Any review of an adaptation of Jane Austen's novels can't help but speak of its shortcomings in relation to the original. It would nevertheless be wrong to treat the original as perfect, which many viewers did to beat the TV version around the head.
But Q.D. Leavis, in her ground-breaking 1941 study, was convinced that Persuasion is "not, I believe, intended for publication as it stands" (1941:3). Austen's writing method was laborious and the novels published in Austen's lifetime required many years of thought (p4). Persuasion appeared without the long gestation period and re-imaginings that Q.D. Leavis documents for other novels from Austen.
Andrew Wright notes that the plot is moved forward by "a series of fortuitous circumstances" (1953/1962;162), otherwise known as unlikely coincidences, though in the case of Persuasion these are more believable in a closed society where the daily round was almost a prison of routine and familiar faces. Indeed, one of Anne Elliot's concerns in the novel is to prepare herself to meet her former lover almost every day in public.
ITV/WGBH's Persuasion, produced with a U.S. as well as young British audience in mind, is a resolutely 'modernized', 92-minute — hence much trucated — version by Simon Burke of Austen's last novel.
Many viewers didn't like it all all. One described it as a Run Lola Run version of the story, a rather cheap shot at the most celebrated addition: Anne Elliot (Sally Hawkins) running back and forth along Bath's streets.
True, this would be hardly likely in Regency Britain, when women of good family would not gallop through the crowded streets of a fashionable resort. Even less likely is the kiss in a public place between the lovers at the end.
And its preamble — Anne lifting her head to Captain Wentworth (Rupert Penry-Jones) — was risibly long. Neither the story nor Hawkins was able to sustain the extended hesitation or delay, which at that moment in the story had no narrative justification, unless she was supposed to be debating whether to risk a public scandal. In which case, the director and his star failed to put the moment across.
That said, the scene was preceded by one of the finest moments of invention: Hawkins stands in the street panting from her exertions and, when Wentworth takes off his hat, realizes that her feelings for her former suitor are returned but then cannot speak, while Charles Musgrove (Sam Hazeldine) rattles on to them about the gun he has a chance to buy.
What I found disturbing is that this modern Anne is a much younger 27-year-old than Austen depicted. Instead of the drama showing how a mature woman can still be vulnerable to the sharpest pangs of frustrated love, we see a girl who is much less in control of herself.
Perhaps this is an indication of how much longer adolescence is thought to last in contemporary society. ITV's Anne Elliot would have been much too young to marry at 19, giving yet more reason for Lady Russell to persuade her not to go ahead with marriage to Wentworth.
Austen's Anne Elliot, by contrast, could well have done so in the early 19th century. Her younger sister Mary is supposed to be married and mother of two young children at 24. See the Baronetage entry on page 1 of the novel for their comparative ages.
For an informed Janeite's commentary on the problems raised by this version, I recommend the imdb user who wrote "I wanted to like this". Like this viewer I rarely found the direct addresses to camera and the extreme closeups a bother. In fact, it encouraged the viewer to interpret that person's expression or lack of it.
But the foregrounding of Anne Elliot's visible sufferings, understandable in a modernization and dramatization, leads in this version to a flattening and caricaturalization of the other characters.
Anthony Head, as Sir Walter Elliot, has all his character's snobbishness and self-centredness but not the Regency foppishness that others (notably Corin Redgrave in the 1995 BBC version) thought a key characteristic of the period. A possible choice for the character, but it diminishes the social criticism that makes Austen such a good notator of Regency life. He is also much more of a tyrant and angry bully in his snobbishness than Austen writes him.
Amanda Hale as Mary Musgrove was given a self-centred neurasthenic role which she tried to enliven with an ever-active performance that irked some viewers, but for me was both hilarious and touching in its desperation, a superb portrait of a young woman trapped in an unhappy marriage from which she can expect no escape.
Mary Stockley, by contrast, was given so little to do as Mrs Clay that it came as a shock to discover that William Elliot (Tobias Menzies) had been wooing her as well as Anne Elliot. There are hints for the director or actor that her amiability is part of her scheme to get a new husband, but she is never given the chance to play them out.
Without any previous hint to the viewer, the revelation in the street about William Elliot and Mrs Clay, from Henrietta Musgrove (Rosamund Stephen), comes as an awkward surprise. It even sounds like a scriptwriter's copout to avoid dealing with Anne's dilemma of choosing between a charming man whose motives she cannot quite understand and a cold and angry former lover to whom she still feels drawn.
The switching of speeches from one character to another led to some awkward moments as well as complaints. Anne's speech on the constancy of women's love, overhead by Wentworth at a crucial point in the novel, takes place in the TV version well before then over dinner. Surely Captain Benwick (Finlay Robertson) would have mentioned this to Wentworth, destroying the suspense, unless he is too self-absorbed to have noticed the import of her speech: and that would have required some signalling.
Astonishment not surprise
Benwick's engagement to Louisa Musgrove (Jennifer Higham) comes like another scriptwriter's deus ex machina rather than a surprise that springs out of their characters.
Similarly, Anne is shown as the manager, rather than just the skivvy, in the Elliot household. Elizabeth (Julia Davis), supposedly just two years older instead of 10, simply appears as the unemployed companion to her father rather than a version of Emma Wodehouse who rules the domestic roost.
Mrs Croft (Marion Bailey) looks much too old to be Wentworth's sister instead of 38. But perhaps modern viewers could not believe that Admiral Croft could be so young (around 40 rather than 60) and were happy with Peter Wight.
Louisa Musgrove's accident is poorly staged, even for television. But the moment quickly passes, and I wouldn't diss the whole teleplay for this.
Lack of motivation
More seriously, Alice Krige as Lady Russell lacks any real motivation except to look sympathetically at Anne. Maisie Dimbleby as Mrs Smith, it seems, is just given a scene to match a plot point in the novel, rather than a reflection of Anne's empathy for a friend who has fallen on hard times and a realistic depiction of the penury in which a woman who was unmarried could be forced to live at that time. It is typical of Austen's skill that this 'victim of circumstances' has a wicked sense of humour, just as her navy officers are each individualized without any caricatural stereotyping.
However, the TV modernization includes Anne playing music, apparently, by the late-19th-century composer Erik Satie, so it is not clear how much of the "period authenticity" we are supposed to take in.
Other viewers complained of the opening hand-held camerawork as well as the speeches and scenes delivered head-on to the camera. The steadycam tracking with extended uncut filming served no narrative purpose, it is true, except being the sort of showy filming that television directors do when they get a bigger than normal budget. They all want to rival Orson Welles at the opening of Touch of Evil, as Robert Altman jokingly exemplified at the start of The Player.
Complain, complain. In fact, a number of other viewers writing on imdb found this slimmed down version of Persuasion. which came across as a British version of Camille Claudel 1915 or Adèle H., both moving and powerful. It certainly focused on Austen's two major contributions to the realist novel: her awareness of the power of money and the many varieties of marriage, most of which she would not have considered worth having.
The TV version passed over in silence the number of relationships scarred by death: Sir Walter Elliot, William Elliot, Lady Russell, Mrs Gray and Mrs Smith, Captain Benwick. True to the time, maybe, but it could have done with some commentary for a modern audience ignorant of her books.
The discreet and beautiful score by Martin Phipps came into its own at the climax, while his sensitivity to the acting in previous scenes marked him out as a composer to follow.
Remarkable Sally Hawkins
Sally Hawkins, such a revelation as Poppie in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), is completely present as Anne, no matter what you think of her interpretation of the character, the complete opposite of her unbearably upbeat Poppie in the other film.
After the complaints about handheld cinematography by David Odd, surely even the direst critics could admire his filming of the Cobb at Lyme Regis. Nevertheless, is not clear why there is a storm (no-one remarks on the bad sea) or why Captain Harry Harville (Joseph Mawle) is out there while the sea crashes over the stone breakers. This does show English holidaymaking at its most determined, and gives U.S. viewers a fair warning of what to expect from U.K. summers. However, it is not Austen.
Seriously, since the scene is filmed first in long shot, even Janeites may have difficulty telling their Benwicks from their Harvilles. When the two characters address each other by their first names, Frederick and Harry, it requires a memory for detail most viewers will not have at this point. In fact it is Harville and Wentworth, not the gloomy Benwick, who fares out in the storm (a pictorial nod to The French Lieutenant's Woman?)
Even at second viewing I was not sure who was on Lyme Cobb or in the hotel taking note of Anne Elliot, so darkly and strangely were they photographed. It was her estranged cousin William, by the way.
All these technical quibbles — over interpretation, cinematography, directing style, ensemble playing — should not, though, stop critics from looking deeper into the challenges of putting Austen on screen.
One question is easily disposed of: how to incorporate Austen's narrative commentary into the dramatization. Here we have Anne writing a diary and giving a voiceover to point out the significance of what we see onscreen.
The problem is that Anne, as portrayed, is quite different on her diary page than we see her in society. In her social life Anne on TV is as demure as Fanny Price rather than as direct as Elizabeth Bennet. But all the dramatizer has are Austen's own narrative voice, deliberately distant from her characters and wonderfully flexible.
The frustration involved in expressing personal feelings while keeping the social rules is a recurrent theme of Austen's that comes out most strongly in Sense and Sensibility (1811). The modernization treated this as part of the romance of inarticulateness while the original poignantly dramatized it as the agonies of trying to communicate one's deepest feelings while keeping such knowledge from your social circle.
What happened in 1806-7?
The key issue that has to be settled by any modernizer is: what exactly happened eight years before when Anne Elliot broke up with Frederick Wentworth? Why is he so bitter? They were not publicly or formally engaged. Anne had good practical reasons for refusing to enter into an engagement, and Wentworth himself, as written by Austen, declares that he would not willingly have a woman (forced to live) on board a British navy ship. To describe it as deserting him, as he does, is going too far.
You may think the problem lies in the novel itself. Austen herself, it is most likely, had not completed the work when she became too ill to do more than sketch out some scenes of Sanditon, and it is the only work where two versions of the climactic chapter of the couple's reconciliation exists (see Mary Lascelles 1933:37-8).
Nevertheless, where in the novel is a proper account of what happened in 1806-7? The two principals do not want to contemplate it, and the details become buried in the drama of Anne's discovery that Wentworth is back in the region.
Someone has to know why
But a modern dramatizer has to know and make us understand why the rejection — hardly the right word for Anne's reasonable decision — was so momentous.
As he confesses in the penultimate chapter, Wentworth — spendthrift and insouciant about money at the time of their engagement — was well-placed financially two years later and about to obtain a lucrative commission in a privateer.
Austen has him also confessing he had thought of returning to Anne at that time, and tells us Anne declared she would have accepted him if he had.
Why this did not happen becomes a major difficulty for Austen to explain away, particularly so late in the novel.
Frederick, for his part, could be accused of inconstancy and lack of confidence in their love. There was certainly nothing in Anne's reasoning to suggest she indicated she did not love him.
Hating the climax
It's understandable that Janeites should have hated the TV movie climax. Apart from its inauthenticity to social mores of the time, the dramatic modern version has nothing on the original quiet, breathtaking serendipity.
In the novel, Anne desperately, comically, tries to get her amiable, self-centred relatives to pass on an apparently innocuous message to Harville and Wentworth that will tell her returned lover she accepts the declaration of love he made in a letter she has just read.
Then, when she goes out into the street, hoping to run across Wentworth, a sign of her desperation, the ever-concerned Charles Musgrove feels duty bound to escort Anne home, though it means giving up his chance to do a deal with a gunsmith.
Seeing Wentworth, Charles expeditiously hands Anne over to him so that he can keep his appointment.
Anne's agonizing problem is solved almost before she realizes it, and their reconciliation takes place in a quiet stroll together.
So much more powerful than the cheap suspense of the TV version.
The problem of Lady Russell
One other key problem of the novel, which the TV movie failed to solve, is that of Lady (no first name) Russell. Widow of a knight and a close friend of the deceased Lady Elliot, she shows terrible judgement throughout, in urging Anne to reject Wentworth, in supporting Sir Walter's plan to move to Bath (while Anne would have preferred staying somewhere near Kellynch Hall), and also in opening the way for William Elliot.
With her exaggerated concern for rank, she seems more like a match for Sir Walter, a possibility that Austen rules out early on, while still describing her as "a sensible, deserving woman".
It is hard to believe Austen would have allowed these contradictions to persist into the final version.
Novels and fairy tales
All great novels are fairy tales, of course. Jane Austen's are variations on the Cinderalla story: a young woman is finally valued at her true worth by the man who is to become her husband, but numerous obstacles stand in their way before they can come together. In Hollywood films it is known to critics as the making of the couple.
There have been complaints that Austen never allowed her imagination to tackle her hero and heroine's life after marriage, and writers who came after her have only been able to see the comic side of the possibilities in writing sequels.
But in her Regency fairy tales, in place of the physical elements such as coaches that turn into pumpkins and a lost slipper, Austen was able to make her plots revolve around psychological barriers.
As elsewhere, she here shows herself a master of the emotional switch in the climactic chapters, though there is a distinct air of tidying up loose ends and trying to cover what cannot be easily explained.
It's a tribute to her lasting power as a writer that so many readers still list Persuasion as their favourite novel.
In The Language of Jane Austen, Norman Page does full justice to what is so modern and original in the novel. "In the blending of narrative and dramatic styles," he writes, "Persuasion represents a full flowering of what can be seen, in a relatively undeveloped state, in the earlier novels" (1972:49).
"Alongside this," he adds, "Jane Austen has developed a syntax exceptionally sensitive to shifts in emotional tone. To an unprecedented extent, the narrative style has left behind the formal eighteenth-century sentence, with its elaboration of subordinate clauses and its emphatic phrasing, and has moved towards a more relaxed and conversational manner, with a quiet intimacy which is in tone with the heroine's nature" (ibid).
Complaining of other critics' failure to appreciate the technical skill of Austen's writing, Page observes: "What Persuasion surely and repeatedly exemplifies is the power of free indirect speech to embody dramatic elements within the flow of the narrative" (1972:136).
It uses devices that became only widely used much later in the century, he points out (ibid).
It is, perhaps, too much to expect a TV writer or director to find satisfactory equivalents for such skill in extreme close-ups, address to camera, long shots and tracking sequences. As here, it was easier to invent new scenes which use these techniques for a more modern interpretation.
The case of Mrs Smith
In line with the consolations offered by popular entertainers at the close of their performances, Austen does allow Wentworth to regain the possessions (in the West Indies) for Mrs Smith as Anne's old schoolfriend.
The TV version drops the novel's suggestion that William Elliot was responsible for the financial problems of Mrs Smith's husband, and switches the revelation about William's character to a hurriedly spoken few sentences in the Bath Street from Harriet. It still comes as a surprise that she should know anything about cousin Elliot, with none of the hesitations and suspected half-truths that preceded Mrs Smith's explanation of the real situation.
True, the episode sits awkwardly in the novel. It reads like a first draft, similar to the unfinished Sanditon. But, improbable as it is, the chapter gives readers a chance to compare the sensitive but finally direct and honest Mrs Smith (honest even about her motives) against Lady Russell. Austen even has Anne reflecting that Lady Russell would have approved a match with William Elliot.
Much is also made in the novel of Wentworth's slow appreciation of Anne Elliot's godmother.
These threads were wisely dropped for TV's short version, though even for television Wentworth could have promised to do something to help Mrs Smith recover her husband's property.
His suspicions and coldness towards Lady Russell in the novel surely deserved some kind of acknowledgement on TV, since her intimacy with Anne was a major reason for his standoffishness towards Anne on returning to the region.
Shopping is the answer
Finally, it was surely a grave misjudgment, even by populist TV standards, to have Wentworth surprise Anne by buying her Kellynch Hall as "your wedding gift".
Still worse to present it in a Hitchcockian circling camera movement around the two lovers.
This conceit improved on second viewing, since even in the closeup they were shown to be dancing — a nice touch spoiled by bad shot-matching.
But Anne had not previously displayed any special attachment to the mansion. Her diary entry dreaming about Kellynch Hall sounded unlikely, since Anne shows concern mainly to be near to the people she loved.
As a result, the invention came across as a standard Hollywoodian 'shopping' solution to all problems, and the stereotypical male condescension towards females stuck out, when this was supposed to be the opposite of all that Wentworth stood for.
In this the filmmakers betrayed the common uncertainty of mass entertainers. It was not enough for the two thwarted lovers to come together. They had to 'do it cute' and flaunt unmatchable wealth and financial power before a gratified audience. So end all capitalist fairy tales.
Lascelles, Mary. Jane Austen and Her Art. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. 1939. 225pp. ISBN:9780485121131.
Leavis, F. R. 1968. A selection from Scrutiny: Vol 2.London: Cambridge U.P. ISBN: 9780521095099.
Leavis, Q.D. 1941. Jane Austen. In Selectons from Scrutiny Vol. 2.
Page, Norman. 1972. The Language of Jane Austen. Routledge. ISBN: 1136599606.
Wright, Andrew H. Jane Austen's Novels: A Study in Structure. London: Chatto & Windus. 1953, reprinted in Peregrine Books 1962. 210pp..