Jane Austen’s least-known and most dramatically problematic novel, “Persuasion,” gets convincing treatment in this finely realized BBC telepic, which Sony Classics is releasing theatrically Stateside. Item will need careful handling to find its target audience, but is sure to appeal to dedicated Jane-ites and could click in a minor way with general female auds. Pic preemed on the British pubcaster’s minority channel, BBC 2, on Easter Sunday, when it drew a decent-sized audience and upbeat reviews.
Austen’s final novel, written when she was dying of the disfiguring Addison’s disease, is an elegiac description of a woman dealt a second shot at the abiding love of her life. Problem for any movie adaptation is that very little actually happens in the book.
Story opens in 1814, with the return of the Navy from the Napoleonic Wars. Debt-strapped aristo Sir Walter Elliot (Corin Redgrave) is forced to lease out his stately pile to Admiral Croft (John Woodvine), among whose circle is handsome (and now wealthy) Capt. Wentworth (Ciaran Hinds), on the lookout to settle down with a wife. Seven years earlier, Elliot’s daughter Anne (Amanda Root) had been engaged to Wentworth, but was persuaded by family “friend” Lady Russell (Susan Fleetwood) to break it off.
Despite that, Anne’s fires have remained unquenched, and when the pair finally meet it’s the start of a gradual, obliquely observed healing process with a rapid resolution.
Given that the yarn is one ofpeople so circumscribed by social conventions that they can’t even get together and talk their problem through until 80 minutes into the pic, any adapter faces the dramatic nightmare of sustaining sympathy for the main characters without inventing things for them to do.
Nick Dear’s screenplay solves the problem by giving full play to the large cast of supporting players and subplots, from Anne’s sickly, shrewish sister Mary (Sophie Thompson), whom she selflessly nurses, through a friend of Wentworth’s (Richard McCabe) — who also once lost a love of his life — to Anne’s wacky brother-in-law Charles (Simon Russell Beale), who almost married her.
By backgrounding the period so well and limning in detail the conservative, gossipy community, the two leads are allowed to gradually emerge from the fabric rather than carry the whole dramatic burden.
When the pieces suddenly fall into place in the final reel, pic carries a genuine adrenalin rush.
Root is terrific as the slow-burning Anne, without grandstanding her role into some latter-day proto-feminist. Her great late-on speech (“All the privilege I claim for my own sex is that of loving longest when all hope is gone”) is all the more moving for its quiet simplicity.
Performances like Hinds’ naval captain, and a whole army of acutely sketched supports, are securely anchored in the period rather than being re-creations of 19th century stereotypes from a 20th century perspective.
Though the film works well on the small screen, and both production and costume design are realistic, there’s a slight lack of oomph and overall style to John Daly’s camerawork that shows the film’s TV origins. Pic would also benefit from a fuller, less fragile score for theatrical showings than Jeremy Sams’ current chamberlike music, which gives the film an almost divertimento feel.