Monday, February 14, 2011

A Beautiful and "Quietly Remarkable" Adaptation

This past Saturday night Doug and I snuggled up together on the sofa and watched Roger Michell's 1995 film adaptation of Jane Austen's novel Persuasion.

I've actually seen this particular film many times. Indeed, it's one of my all-time favorites. Doug, on the other hand, was unfamiliar with it. I'm pleased to report that he enjoyed it thoroughly, although he did find the stifling of the main characters' hopes and desires by the social mores of their day (and thus the seemingly never-ending thwarting of their coming together romantically) to be nerve-wrackingly suspenseful. Having seen the film many times and thus knowing how it ends, I must admit I found it rather entertaining to watch such a response from a first-time viewer! (Sorry, honey!)

Anyway, after watching the film I went in search the next day of a City Pages review that I remember cutting out and saving way back in 1996! And, believe it or not, I found it!

As you'll see, it's a wonderfully written review by Emily Carter. And I must say that rereading it as I typed it out this evening, I found myself once again resonating with the insights Carter shares so articulately, eloquently and, at times, humorously. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. I also hope that you'll take the time to
find and watch Roger Michell's beautiful and, as Carter says, "quietly remarkable" adaptation of Persuasion.


Austen Space

The pleasures of Jane Austen’s Persuasion are heightened onscreen

By Emily Carter
City Pages
October 1996

I have vivid memories of reading Henry James as a young girl and throwing the book across the room in frustrated bafflement: Everything that was driving the plot was taking place offstage, and god only knew what it was. Why, for instance, was the fact that Daisy Miller went for a walk with an Italian man so scandalous it affected her marriage prospects? What did they do on the walk, rob a bank? And marriage meant a love story, which was nice, but what on earth were the characters so tweaked about? It seemed like much more serious things were at stake than mere lovey-dovey. In fact, the forces – money and sex – that propelled James’ characters into their various moral dilemmas were quite simple, but times being what they were, it was impossible to mention them.

Which is odd, because Jane Austen, an English writer who died before James was born, had explained these very same motivations in a satisfactory light. Unshackled by old-money pretensions, her characters speculated freely on the financial worth of those around them, remarking on the size of this or that suitor’s “fortune” with cheerful vulgarity.

What continues to amaze about Austen is how she presented not just little romances, but the workings, both external and hidden, of her place and time. Each of her books is a black pearl of sociology.

In Persuasion, the new movie based on her last book, the peculiar weight placed on the marriage plot in indicated visually – the trappings of hideous luxury are displayed and contrasted with respectable affluence, and there is a slightly sinister quality to the aristocratic family’s ideas about decorating. At one point, the family of the movie’s heroine sits at a table in the resort town of Bath, and the camera circles slowly around the centerpiece: a five-tiered formation in which excruciatingly arranged midget pineapples compete with foaming bunches of grapes, held aloft on ornately wrought silver tiers. It’s the world’s most frightening fruit basket, and a deliberate metaphor for the world where our heroine finds herself trapped.

Amanda Root, who irritatingly is being described as “the most promising actress to emerge from England since Emma Thompson,” turns in a very fine performance as Anne Elliot, the story’s Cinderella. Her evil stepsisters are actually a collection of real sisters, sister-in-laws and a truly atrocious father, Sir Walter Eliot [Corin Redgrave] – who could be the prototype for every braying jackass aristocrat appearing in English farce over the years.

Escape and love had appeared briefly to Anne in the form of Captain Wentworth [Ciarán Hinds] eight years before the movie’s opening, but the practical-minded Lady Russell [Susan Fleetwood], the family’s advisor, convinced her to turn down the “young man with no fortune, with nothing but himself to recommend.” Now 27 and approaching spinsterhood, Anne can only watch in shame as her father’s imbecile profligacy forces him to rent his estate to an admiral from the navy, in his view a hotbed of class-climbing upstarts. Predictably, the new tenants turn out to be the sister and brother-in-law of the spurned Captain Wentworth. Root does as impeccable job of looking “ashen” when she hears the news.

What follows is notable not for its girl-gets-boy plot, but for its portrayal of the silent, tectonic forces shifting beneath the narrative. The danger to Anne is more than the threat of spinsterhood; her world and family threatens to enclose her in a gray, suffocating loneliness. (Being a heroine, of course, she keeps a positive attitude, dwells on others more than herself, etc.) It’s t director Roger Michell’s credit that he neither over- nor underplays the ominousness of Anne’s situation. Bypassing sentiment, he punches up a much more effective melancholy via the characters’ controlled but expressive faces, and the sad, gray English sunlight.

Amanda Roots’s performance is exquisite. In the movie’s first half her character says just enough to let us in on the plot, while the other characters yammer their silly heads off. Of course, we’re already primed to sympathize with the silent sufferer, but Root gives Anne subtle shades of sadness, humanity and, most important, stifled irritation. What this does is give us a three-dimensional human being, rather than the saintly woodcuts that often passed for heroines at the time of Austen’s writing. This is no mean feat, since the character, by virtue of her time and place, must remain passive. In the book, this was not a problem, as the narrator could move things around. One of the lasting pleasures of an Austen novel is the author’s trenchant and insightful commentary into the motivations and machinations of her world.

Lacking this outlet, the filmmakers have relied on Root’s reactions and on the mood of suspenseful sadness: Twice in the movie, characters fall down and are seriously injured. This is usually a device for showcasing the heroine’s levelheadedness, competence and compassion. In the film, however, there is a real impact to the injuries: The reaction of a young boy’s parents to his fall from a tree seems shocking in its callousness, and the fall taken by Anne’s rival is filmed to make you wince. Persuasion gives life to these stock incidents, improving on the book’s intention.

What makes this film quietly remarkable is its relation with Austen’s novel. Without interfering one iota with the book’s integrity, Michell brings an informed 20th-century sensibility to it. Never bending the author’s will to his own, never disrespecting the characters, he adds a certain sadness to the proceedings that result from the long backward gaze we cast into Austen’s time. Marriage is not just something Anne wants, it is the only thing a woman had to do with herself in that era. Without it, she was hugely diminished, an appendage to her family of origin. The movie’s suspense tone never lets us forget that there is more at stake here than a mere last-chance romance. The pitying glances of the other characters, the moody lighting and stately shadows conspire to create a picture of what “spinsterhood” means to the heroine. Director Michell takes all the social forces at work in the novel and translates them beautifully into sight and sound, making the story unforgettable.

Jane Austen’s heroines were clearly stand-in for the author, and for the readers, as they wished themselves to be: Clear-eyed, unpretentious, dutiful, humorous and decent, the women in Austen’s stories were rewarded, in the currency of the times, for their goodness. It’s a measure of the slight difference between fiction and life that Austen died unmarried at the age of 41. Persuasion keeps the beauty of imagination, while implying the sadness of facts.

– Emily Carter
City Pages
October 1996


Okay, here's an extra little treat: excerpts from Caryn James' New York Times review! It's another wonderfully written and insightful review of Persuasion. Enjoy!

Though Persuasion is not the most dramatic of Austen's novels, it may well be the most deeply felt; written during her final illness, it was published in 1818, a year after her death. Similarly, the subdued Anne is not the most immediately endearing of her heroines, but she is the most mature and possibly the most poignant and autobiographical.

Anne is the sane center around which Austen constructs the most bitter and redeeming of her social satires.
And this is brilliantly captured by Mr. Michell, with the screenwriter Nick Dear and a cast completely in sync with Austen's warm but piercing style. Their Persuasion is profoundly truthful in many ways: in its sense of emotional longing; in its natural, unglamorized visual beauty, ranging from drawing rooms to the sea; in its fidelity to the delicate tone of Austen's satire and romance. . . .

Ms. Root and Ciarán Hinds form the powerful center of the film. Ms. Root makes Anne sad but never self-pitying or forlorn. . . . Her ability to signal unspoken emotions is matched by Mr. Hinds, whose sternly handsome face expresses the pain and distrust that linger after Anne's old rejection.

Above: Amanda Root as Anne Elliot and Ciarán Hinds as Captain Frederick Wentworth in Roger Michell's 1995 film adaptation of Persuasion.

Susan Fleetwood as Lady Russell, above, and Fiona Shaw and John Woodvine as Mrs. and Admiral Croft, left. In her New York Times review, Caryn James notes that, like all the supporting cast of Persuasion, Fleetwood, Shaw and Woodvine "turn functional types into credible individuals."

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