Persuasion Adaptations: Part 2

Persuasion, as a novel, is unique in that it is Austen’s last complete novel. It was published after her death and what we read is the second draft (yes, there is a first draft of this tale, called ‘The Elliots”) so there is a sense that the novel we read is not quite finished/polished. The title was given by Austen’s brother when he decided to publish Persuasion and Northanger Abbey after her death. And this may account for the lack of adaptations because it is difficult to adapt a novel that does, at times, feel a bit lacking in certain areas (particularly when it comes to the feelings or actions of Anne Elliot). However, this is Part 2 of a thee part series and we’ve now come to the 1995 Adaptation.

Nick Dear wrote the screenplay for the 1995 version, which was a BBC/Masterpiece conjoined venture. Additional funding from France and Mobil gave it a very large budget and instead of doing a five or six part miniseries, they opted to do a film version. This is where it becomes a bit unusual because this version did air on BBC and PBS in 1995, but was also then released in theaters as an art film (independent film) in the fall of that year as well. This adaptation has the unusual distinction of being the only feature length film version of Persuasion we have, even though it may not have been meant to be a film initially, it became one in the end. So, when I view this particular version, I do tend to label it as a film and not a television version given the bigger budget and how it comes together. It’s by far short at being a little over two hours, but flows nicely which works as an independent film. It was not as popular nor as advertised as 1995’s Sense & Sensibility film version, yet this film holds up just as well with it’s smaller budget and excellent RSC cast. This is likely the first version any Austen fan came across for this particular novel.

Amanda Root as Anne Elliot and Ciran Hinds as Captain Frederick Wentworth.

Firstly, I do love the way this film opens. It does a superb job of showing you precisely what time frame we are in by showing us Naval men getting together on a ship and being told that Napoleon has abdicated. It’s our first introduction to the officers and it’s the first glimpse we have into the post-war world we will now find ourselves in. I do love Corin Redgrave as Sir Walter Elliot. He positively shines as baronet obsessed with status and vanity. Mrs. Clay is plain and dowdy, but her looks (in terms of clothing) improve in Bath, which I do appreciate. Elizabeth is pretty but not overly so and looks to be around the same age as Anne. Mary, while mean to be younger, also looks to be around the same age as Anne, which I don’t mind. Having the Elliot siblings at least look closer in age doesn’t bother me as much as having Anne look much older than the other two. Anne looks tired, which I accept as her looks do progressively improve as the film enters into Bath. Susan Fleetwood, who portrays Lady Russell, sparkles as her character and I am sad to say she died in 1995, so this is her last film role. Every actor was cast exceptionally well and fits the role. Even the Miss Musgroves fit and they come across as annoying at times.

What I most love is the casting of the Crofts. While they do not have a major part in the novel, I buy that this couple cares deeply for Wentworth. I sense a familial connection between Sophia and Frederick. They act like siblings in public. That emotional connection which I found missing in the 1971 version is present in this one. And the Misgroves were cast very well as they come off as boisterous, loud, and full of life. Qualities which they didn’t quite capture in 1971, but are on full display here.

The Crofts. Truly Adorable.

Because this was filmed differently, there is much more on location and attention to using existing houses and homes, which is nice to see. Interior shots look like they were done in in some of these existing homes or in very detailed sets. One must consider that film quality has vastly improved since the 1970s as has camera quality, which will make a difference. More subtle use of natural lightening and also what I believe to be gray or tonal gels used to give the impression of overcast skies at times I actually don’t mind. The novel is meant to take place over the course of a late summer 1814 into Autumn and then end in Winter 1815. Much of the novel was cut due to time, but major points or scenes were kept such as Walter’s falling out of the tree, the walk to Uppercross, etc. Cutting of little scenes, while they are lovely in the novel, don’t necessarily translate well to a film. To a miniseries, yes, those generally are kept but since the intention was to go for more of a film feel, those scenes need to be cut.

Sir Walter, Lady Russell, Elizabeth, Anne, and Mrs. Clay meeting Lady Dalrymple!

One thing cannot be stressed enough is that the costumes were exceptionally well done. The trousers (see Sir Walter above) are not only period correct, but of the right length to showcase those lovely legs encased in stockings! Alexandra Bryne did the Costume Design and won an award for it. She completely deserved it, in my humble opinion. The use of different textures, such as velvets, silks, jacquards, cottons, laces, and prints to give each character (from main characters to even servants) a story is the ultimate goal of any costume designer. Dresses and other garments also looked worn in places and comfortable, as they should look. No one should be donning a costume that looks so uncomfortable and stiff that it inhibits their acting style. Which brings us to the subject of the naval uniforms. Now, some critics then and now do not like seeing Wentworth, Admiral Croft, or any of the Naval men in uniform in this adaptation.  I have done a considerable amount of research and while it was frowned upon in France for me to wear their uniform after the War, be aware that they lost. In England, these men (both Navy and Army) were the victors-the heroes. I cannot think of a reason why they would not wear their uniforms to formal dinners. And for a Navy man to not wear his uniform in Bath? When Lord Nelson was that city’s favorite son? It doesn’t seem logical to not see men about in uniform after a major victory in a town that was all about the Navy at that time. So, for me, it is historically accurate to see Wentworth, Croft, Harville, Benwick and other naval men in their uniforms. I would have even liked to see an Army man or two in uniform to be honest. These men were heroes and would have been hailed as such. I do think critics lack the capability to do basic historical research at times.

Lady Dalrymple, Viscountess. Notice her makeup! Glorious!

One item I do not like is the lack of makeup on the women. Makeup was available. Lady Russell is seen wearing a little bit and I would have liked to see a little more attention paid to that end for all the women involved. I saw more attempts for historical accuracy for the extras in terms of makeup than for the main characters (though Lady Dalrymple has a goodly amount). We must stop this mindset that women no longer wore makeup after the French Revolution because it’s simply not true. The style of makeup changed, but it was still worn. I do like the different hairstyles, which is a plus. Some have complained about the short hair on Mrs. Croft and Lady Russell. Historically, women did have short hair at this time. Many of these women wore turbans. Guess who wears turbans in the films?

A la Titus from Costume Parisienne circa 18008-1810 (I believe)

Lady Russell in a divine Scotch Turban.

I also appreciate that this is the only adaptation to portray Mrs. Smith (Anne Elliot’s schoolfriend) as an actual invalid. Most tend to portray her as a down-on-her-luck widow, which she is. However, her maiden name is Emma Hamilton. Any student of history who knows even a smidgen of Lord Nelson knows Lady Emma Hamilton was the lover of Lord Nelson, gave birth to his illegitimate daughter, and didn’t have a good ending (alcoholism in Calais). So, I have always wished for her to look ill and someone who should be residing in Westgate Buildings. Westgate Buildings were located near the Doctors and the Baths for a reason as the residents in these buildings were invalids. The rooms should be sparse and hold a minimum of comfort. Everything wasn’t all lovely and refinement back then.

Anne visiting Mrs. Emma Smith and Nurse Rooke in Westgate. Emma looks ill.

Other minor details which tickle my fancy that are historically accurate and are just nice touches: dancing is seen as lively, engaging and exuberant. Beer is seen served in the daytime (beer was drunk for Breakfast). You see people processing fish in Lyme (and it’s messy!). Eyebrows on women are not pencil (accurate) and being in a carriage doesn’t always look comfortable. On the other hand, things which I found annoying are Louisa’s lack of controlling her hair. Changing Charles Hayter (the cousin engaged to Henrietta) to Henry Hayter and he’s barely in it. At least have him walk Henrietta home from Winthrop (more screen time for the poor chap). The Charles Musgrove children are always depicted as being much older than they should be. If Mary is 22 at the oldest, she’s been married either 4 years (so her boys are 3 and 2) or has been married as long as 6 years (so 5 & 4). Yes, that would mean she was either 18 or 16 when she married Charles (the boys are routinely depicted as being at least 7 or 8).

A few issues that annoy some people, though not me is having Anne become a bit more self-assured when she comes to Bath and standing up to her father. Remember, Austen never polished this novel because she died young, so having Anne stand up to her father and see Mrs. Smith over the Dalrymples verbally, while not in the book, is what she does. She does chose to defy her father’s wishes and see her friend, so it’s not out of the realm of possibilities to have her say “No”. And as for the scene where Wentworth is discharging a request made by his Admiral, some critics have stated this scene is from the infamous first draft of the novel, but is missing from the second (which is the version that was published). I’ve never read the first draft so cannot confirm this theory, but if that is true, it may have been a scene Austen was debating on whether she should include it or not. The last issue people have is the kiss. For all the silly reasons to be upset, a kiss is the least of their concerns. Yes, historically, women did not kiss in public as it was not proper yet there are many first hand letters and accounts from people available online to read that describe engaged couples kissing in public at this time. People in love will behave in a certain way and this has been true for ages. It’s not that unbelievable to see Anne and Frederick sharing a kiss to cement their mutual understanding. This is a love story, after all, or a couple that has been apart, but in love with each other for 8 years. That is an incredibly long time to wait for a kiss.

So, is this adaption perfect? By no means it isn’t! It is enjoyable, short (which is nice if you don’t want to sit through a long miniseries), and is simply lovely. It also has the added distinction of being the only film version we have, which is a great pity. For a novel that ranks higher than Emma, it has less film and TV adaptations to it’s name. I would love to see a bigger budget, closer to three hour film version. This novel deserves it. We as Jane Austen fans deserve it. For now, I guess we’ll settle for a nice, quiet gravel walk…