Written in the year before her death, Persuasion is Jane Austen's darkest novel. The plot is similar to those of Emma and Pride and Prejudice. A sensible and intelligent woman overcomes her own character flaws and the interference of her family and friends to marry the only man who is her equal.
In Persuasion, matters are a little more complicated. Eight years prior to the action of the novel, Anne Elliot rejected Captain Frederick Went-worth, the only man she ever loved, all because of the well-meaning "persuasion" of her family and her best friend, Lady Russell. As the novel opens we see Anne fading into her unmarriageable 30s, with only herself to blame for her loneliness. When Captain Wentworth unexpectedly returns to her life, there is a sense of desperation in Anne's response; this is her last chance to be happy.
The new film version of Persuasion, directed by Roger Michell, seizes on this desperation, making it the film's emotional keynote. When Anne (Amanda Root) first appears, she seems almost panicked, with her pale face, thin-lipped grimace and wide, staring eyes. She is still stunned over the rupture with Wentworth, and when he is first referred to in her presence she trembles, almost weeping. This sense of barely contained grief haunts her throughout the film.
The film begins with the Elliots being hounded by their creditors, their debts so large that they must rent out the family estate, Kellynch Hall. Anne's vain father, Sir Walter Elliot (Corin Redgrave), and her malicious older sister, Elizabeth (Phoebe Nicholls), protest in horror, showing immediately that they lack that prime Austenian virtue, good sense. Only Anne and Lady Russell (Susan Fleetwood), who in the film seems something of an aging bohemian, make the necessary case for relocating to the resort town of Bath, where, as Sir Walter's lawyer tells him, "It is possible to be important at less expense."
The new tenant of Kellynch, however, turns out to be Admiral Croft, the brother-in-law of Captain Wentworth, meaning that Wentworth and Anne will inevitably be thrust together. When Wentworth arrives, it seems as if he will soon be engaged to Louisa Musgrove, a high-spirited but silly girl who is Anne's opposite. Indeed, Anne's thoughtless sister Mary (Sophie Thompson) reports that Wentworth had said that "he would hardly have recognized her." It seems that she is condemned to watch in silence as the man she still loves is lost to her forever.
It is with sheer pleasure, then, that we watch as events take an unexpected turn, separating Wentworth from Louisa and bringing him, through a thicket of obstacles, back to Anne. "Persuasion" is certainly a tale of romance, in which the heroine ends up happy against all odds. But what makes it distinctively a Jane Austen story is the moral dimension of the romance; the real agony of Anne's plight is not just her lack of a husband, but her total isolation among people who neither understand nor value her character and virtue.
Unfortunately, it is this moral dimension of the story which Michell's film is least able to convey. In Amanda Root's Anne, for example, the sense of an active critical mind is often missing. Anne seems so afflicted, so desperate, that we rarely feel that she is her family's superior, always judging them; rather, she seems to be a mere victim of their mistreatment. And that mistreatment is portrayed so luridly-Nicholls' Elizabeth, especially, is a snickering ghoul-that Walter and Elizabeth Elliot seem closer to the wicked step-family of Cinderella than the conceited fools of Austen's novel. Likewise, Ciaran Hinds' Wentworth, while he cuts a fine figure in his naval uniform, gives little sense of that personal merit which ostensibly attracts Anne.
If the film cannot bring to life Austen's narrative voice, which is the real delight of all her novels, it can-and does-provide a more immediate sense of the feeling of daily life. The film goes out of its way to show us that, when these characters go on a long walk through the fields, they come back wet and dirty, their hems torn and stained. At night, there isonly candlelight, casting everything into shadow. And, in sharp contrast to usual Hollywood practice, nobody looks like a model; the women wear no make-up, the men are paunchy and badly shaven. The film also benefits from some finely drawn minor characters. Louisa Musgrove, her brother Charles, and Admiral and Mrs. Croft (Fiona Shaw) are all sympathetically portrayed.
"Persuasion" encounters the inevitable fate of a movie based on an Austen novel: It is louder, more simplistic and garish than the original. When Anne and Wentworth kiss on the street in Bath, the whole social code which underlies Austen's world is simply tossed aside in the name of a satisfying climax. But although the film's tone is not perfect, it is close. And the acting, cinematography, even music, are as good as could be hoped for. Go see "Persuasion," but don't forget to stop at the bookstore on the way home.