Persuasion Adaptations: Part 1

Now, I must confess that Jane Austen’s Persuasion is by far my favorite of her novels. So, one would think that there would be a plethora of adaptations available to pick and chose in order to discuss which ones work and which ones don’t. Shockingly, there have been only 4 adaptations of this wonderful novel. A BBC Miniseries in the early 1960s (which they erased and has been “lost”) is considered the first and regrettably no one can view it. There are a few still photographs available on-line and the cast list makes me wish a copy may one day be found. The second adaptation is a 1971 BBC/ITV version and is now available on DVD. The third, and probably most well known, is the 1995 version which is a BBC/A&E collaboration which was released as an independent film (more on that in Part 2). And finally, a 2007 BBC/ITV production. Since there are only three available, this makes it much easier on my part to discuss each in their own posting (parts), which will end with a conclusion on the last part regarding my recommendation. So, let us begin with the oldest, shall we?

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Wentworth (Mutton Chops!), Anne, and Charles Musgrove in Bath.

Persuasion (1971) adaptation was adapted by Julian Mitchell and originally aired in five episodes. When you see it now on DVD, it is only in 2 parts, which makes it easier to view (there’s definitely more of an unbroken story this way) but be aware it IS long (thankfully we have pause functions). Things that do stand out that are commendable about this version is the adherence to the text. The stillborn son is mentioned and this is the only adaptation to mention Sir Walter’s wife did have children other than the three daughters. I do love the over abundance of mirrors placed around the set of Kellynch to show rather than tell us how vain Sir Walter is because this is a fundamental part of his character and there is a reference in the novel to him having an excessive amount of looking glasses in his bedchamber, so this subtle way of reinforcing that concept is nice. I should warn whomever does seek out to watch this adaptation that there is a major difference from when the actors are inside to when they are outside. Some of this is simply down to the way it was filmed (this was done in 1970) and while the outside scenes are lovely, the inside scenes are definitely done on a set or sound-stage. I found that to be a trifle disappointing, but considering other adaptations done around the same time, this seems to be the normal procedure so I do take this into consideration.

The cast is a mixture of people who truly fit the role and those who seem just an odd fit. Ann Fairbank is wonderful as Anne Elliot. She is charming, able to convey silently all those emotions we know Anne is feeling, but also able to not seem like a weakling, which is not how I see Anne Elliot, but many people feel she should be portrayed this way. As the only original Anne Elliot we have, we have an excellent actress who does fit this role even when watching it today. Bryan Marshall is Captain Frederick Wentworth and while he is the perfect counterbalance to Ann Fairbank, he doesn’t quite fit the role of a Royal Naval Captain. While the pair are able to convey a shared past to us, I do feel his performance would not have been as convincing as it was without such am excellent Anne Elliot to pull it from him. I don’t “buy” into his role until about half way through. Now, this could have been done on purpose, to somehow make the audience feel awry about the good Captain and his intentions until part way through the series (which fits the novel), but in order to “buy” into this love story (and it IS a love story), you have to want to be with Captain Wentworth. You have to make some sort of emotional connection to his character (which is a basic tenant I learned during my Theatre days) or you lose the audience. He loses me, which is sad because he’s a fine actor.

As for the other actors, I thought Sir Walter was a very good casting as was Mr. Shepherd. I don’t mind the actress who portrays Mrs. Clay because she is sweet and conniving, which is a unique way of portraying that character. Elizabeth Elliot and Mary Musgrove both look younger than Anne Elliot, which is an issue considering in the novels, Elizabeth is the eldest and Mary is the youngest (Anne is the middle child). I do understand that one casts for the part, but it was unusual. Lady Russell was neither elegant nor motherly and I had issues as well as the casting of the Crofts and the Musgroves as well.  Lady Russell is described as being an elegant widow and she was portrayed and costumed a bit dowdy, which is an affront to the novel. The Crofts in no way seemed like they had ever been to sea and I didn’t believe Mrs. Croft was sister to Wentworth (they are siblings in the novel). There was almost no sense of a sibling relationship there which I was missing. The Musgroves are said to be large and were cast as two fairly tiny individuals. I’ve not yet deiced whether I like William Elliot or not. However, Captain Harville (poor man!), kept switching which leg was injured in this adaptation (a cane would have greatly helped). Captain Harville would have made an excellent William Elliot in my opinion (basically, switch those actors and I believe it would have been a great improvement).

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Anne in Lady Russell’s home. Notice the Oriental Vibe.

The costumes are…typical of the 1970s in that they are trying to be historically accurate, but at the same time, they are costuming as if for the stage and not film, so you do see zippers. A lot of zippers and a hodge podge of styles ranging from 1810 to 1830 in one story. FYI, the story of Persuasion takes place in 1814-1815 and is the only Jane Austen novel that we have a definite time-line as it begins with Napoleon being sent to Elba and ends before he escapes. Why this is so hard to keep in mind for all the adaptations, I cannot fathom. Getting back to the costumes in this one-the men were wearing trousers more suitable for Jane Eyre than Austen. The prints, if you can tell from the above image, are very late 1960s. If I were to show a profile of any of the ladies in this adapataion, you would get the nice bullet nipple profile, which is NOT historically accurate. As you can tell, the hair was not good at all. Ann Fairbank had, for the most part, what I can only describe as a sort of pushed back beehive. I can only surmise they were trying to fit the hairstyles into the bonnets, not realizing that women’s hair did not need to fit the exact shape of a poke bonnet.

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Elizabeth Elliot. Her hair is more 1820s. And her dress is very psychedelic.

The facial hair on the men as well is a bit weird. Now, I have seen some portraits of men during this time with facial hair. Mutton chops, however, are so closely tied with the Victorian aesthetic that it’s such an unusual choice here.

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Wentworth (Mutton Chops!) & Anne at the End. Her hair is vastly improved.

It does feel, and I have no way of knowing if it’s true or not, but many of the men’s clothes in particular were made for future Victorian adaptations or were pulled from stock. And while they are from the 19th Century, clothes befitting a man in the late 1820s to early 1830s is completely different profile wise from what he would be wearing in 1810-1815. The same applies to the costumes for the women. The waistlines varied from right under the bust to a few inches lower, which completely changes the profile of the gown being worn. Yes, this may sound a bit like I am picking on this adaptation, but there are some points that do work historically.

First is they do try to use silks, velvets, printed fabrics for the ladies and wool, suede, and rich jewel colors for the men. This is historically accurate in terms of what they were trying to achieve, but they just didn’t quite reach that threshold of being accurate. But for a “first” attempt (since the 1960s version is lost, this, for all accounts, is the first version available), it’s not bad. Secondly, the interior sets are full of Rocco elements, which I do like. People tend to think places like Kellynch and the Great Hall would have been completely Regency/Late Georgian inside and that’s not even remotely true. Elizabeth makes a statement in the novel about not redoing a room because of the lack of funds. How long has it been since the room was redone? Possibly close to thirty years if the last time it was redone was in the time of Elizabeth’s mother, which means styles would have drastically changed. Even if it was only fifteen years, that’s still a significant change in interior aesthetic which could be shown. So, in my opinion, the use of Rocco and mid Georgian Era elements fits for both interior shots (they even use a slight Oriental theme in Lady Russell’s home which was very popular starting around 1810 due to the Prince Regent and John Nash. Now, the colors used at times are a bit jarring (the bright reds and really bold greens) because softer colors were used and a bit more acceptable colors. This doesn’t mean bold colors were never used (Red patterned wallpaper in a Chinese design was very popular thanks to Prinny and Brighton), but I do have to keep in mind that the interior scenes are not shot inside actual homes, but on a set somewhere, and the bolder colors may have been used to help with lightening, but to also help the sets stand out from the black background.

Thirdly, I do appreciate using jewelry on the women and makeup. Regardless of what people try to tell you, makeup was still in use and still being manufactured. While white lead faces were no longer the acceptable look, the use of lip color, rouge, perhaps a little bit of kohl around the eyes was being used. Not much, as they did want to go for a more naturalistic look, but even today, the natural look requires makeup. And an effort was made to make Anne seem to take an interest in her looks after Wentworth makes the comment that she basically looks terrible. Even her hair, as badly styled as it is, does improve and ends up resembling something a bit more Regency at the end.

Fourthly, and I am completely sincere in this, I am grateful that even though the trousers are not accurate, Wentworth’s pants are a trifle snug. As are Captain Harville’s. I am a single woman in possession of wit and a fine mind, but even I can appreciate the male form when placed before me on display. I am not dead yet.

Finally, while this does have things that are not accurate, it is very faithful to the novel. The acting in it is exceptional and even though there are some odd casting choices, those people do a good job with their respective roles. The music used is original to the adaptation and is beautifully done. I have not yet been able to see if it’s available on CD, but I would not mind having the music because it is so well done. Since receiving this DVD for my birthday, I’ve seen this adaptation three times, so let’s just say I don’t dislike it.

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