Persuasive arguments

14th April 1995 at 01:00
SCREEN TWO: PERSUASION, BBC2, Sunday, April 16, 10pm, TES april 14 1995

The BBC has made the first film version of 'Persuasion'. Tania Rice reports.

This first-ever film adaptation of Persuasion will have Jane Austen devotees sighing with appreciation at screenplay-writer Nick Dear's skill in translating the novel to film, while hyperventilating at a few of his omissions and elisions.

Persuasion, which opens in an autumnal Somerset of 1814, is the story of 27-year-old Anne Elliot, a woman past her "bloom" and set for spinsterhood, having been persuaded to give up the man she loved eight years earlier by her great friend, Lady Russell. Captain Wentworth, her suitor, was "brilliant", but also "headstrong" and "without alliance or fortune".

The main target of Austen's satire is the importance given to rank. By highlighting the social revolution caused by the navy, as an institution where honour and fortune could be won rather than inherited, the film drives to the heart of the novel. People are not what they appear, but rather what their actions prove them to be.

The opening scenes of the film herald the triumphant return from war of the navy and Captain Wentworth, interwoven with images foretelling the imminent financial ruin of Anne's family. The vain pomposity of Anne's widowed father, the profligate Sir Walter, perfectly played by a lisping Corin Redgrave, is contrasted to the robust dignity of Admiral Croft, the better man of the two, who takes up the tenancy of the Elliot family home when they are forced to let it. Rank has lost its guarantees: a different kind of person is coming to the fore. And Anne will be among them.

This balancing of contrasting elements, of character and place, good and evil, is Jane Austen's forte, an aspect of the writing that the film grasps eloquently at the outset.

Director Roger Michell (previously director of the BBC adaptation of Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia) brilliantly contrasts the opulent but cold formality of Sir Walter Elliot's house, his language and manners, with the altogether cosier, more relaxed and happier atmosphere of the family home of their in-laws, the Musgroves.

A budget of only Pounds 1.8 million (compared with Pounds 7 million for the BBC's forthcoming six-part Pride and Prejudice) seems to have been no restriction. There is enough period detail to satisfy the nostalgia market and Bath and Lyme Regis are skillfully exploited locations. The cast are dazzling, with Sophie Thompson and Simon Russell Beale pitch-perfect as May and Charles Musgrove.

As Austen's physical descriptions are so economical, the director might be thought to have had a freer hand than the writer. Captain Wentworth could look and sound quite different from how he is played by Ciaran Hinds, although he is every inch the dashing, dignified hero. But the burden of being faithful to Austen's text and of translating the psychological drama to the scene falls primarily on writer, Nick Dear.

Anne's passivity in the first part of the book might be seen as undramatic in film terms, but her persistence in simply being who she is, whatever the circumstances, is her great virtue. In the novel, Captain Wentworth realises this only at the last moment, after Austen has almost convinced us that he will marry someone else. And it is this drama that the film gives away too readily.

Once persuaded that Wentworth still loves her, Anne, subtly played by Amanda Root, does encourage him, but all within strict bounds. If Jane Austen was a social critic, she was no feminist.

When Anne sprints out of character and across the concert room to waylay the mistakenly jealous Wentworth, the film leaves Austen's world of virtuous steadfastness behind.

There are other changes of emphasis in the screenplay. In the novel, Anne's cousin Mr Elliot is not after her for her money, but on-screen his deceitfulness is developed to cast Captain Wentworth in a better light. And in the novel Lady Russell, who almost persuades Anne of Elliot's suitability, is misguided, but is not the hissing vixen we see in one scene with Wentworth in the film.

Those who have never read the book, or remember it only dimly, have everything to look forward to in this film. But some of the differences from the book are too significant not to be lamented. The more so because this talented team could have avoided them.

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