Wednesday, July 26, 2017

TV Movie Review - Persuasion

Based on the book by Jane Austen
Release Date: April 1st, 2007
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Alice Krige, Anthony Head, Julia Davis, Michael Fenton Stevens, Mary Stockley, Peter Wight, Marion Bailey, Amanda Hale, Sam Hazeldine, Jennifer Higham, Rosamund Stephen, Stella Gonet, Nicholas Farrell, Louis Shergold, Rupert Penry-Jones, Joseph Mawle, Finlay Robertson, Tobias Menzies, Maisie Dimbleby, Sarah Buckland, and Tilly Tremayne
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

All is chaos at Kellynch Hall. Anne Elliot, the daughter of Sir Walter Elliot and the younger sister of Elizabeth Elliot has tried all she could to get her family to retrench but the time has come to face reality. As her father and sister stuff their faces with delicacies the decision has been made to lease the house and move the family to Bath. The father of Elizabeth's dear friend Mrs. Clay has found a naval man without children to take the house. A perfect fit, as his wife has nothing to do but make sure the house is preserved. Though upon hearing that their name is Croft Anne is beset by emotions she thought long gone. Eight years previously she was engaged to Mrs. Croft's brother, Fredrick Wentworth. The engagement was broken as it was viewed he didn't have any prospects. He is now a wealthy captain and is coming back into Anne's life looking for a wife. Anne has no hope that she might regain his heart, instead tucked away with her younger sister Mary at Uppercross she sees Fredrick set his cap at Mary's sisters-in-law, Louise and Henrietta Musgrove. Anne is aflutter and constantly aware of his presence. He is kind, but he is no longer hers and it aches so painfully. When the party from Uppercross takes a trip to Lyme Regis the expected course of all their lives is upended. Louisa has a fall and Captain Wentworth's friends must nurse her back to health while Anne is sent off to Bath to rejoin her family. Soon Captain Wentworth comes to Bath and Anne can't help hoping that perhaps things have changed. Perhaps she can hope again. She has somehow attracted the attention of her cousin and her father's heir, Mr. Elliot, and could this jealousy spark Captain Wentworth into making his feelings known? Or will Fredrick lose the love of his life because he embraced the opposite of all that he initially regretted in Anne's behavior all those years earlier?

ITV's Jane Austen season of 2007 did a lot to rectify issues I had in previous Austen adaptations. Consisting of Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion, while Northanger Abbey easily won the day, Persuasion wasn't that far behind. What this adaptation did while not being 100% faithful to the book was to give us an intimate, introspective, and artistic adaptation that emotionally connects you to Anne Elliot. This adaptation favored music that pulled on your heartstrings instead of attempting to jam all the book's dialogue into a ninety minute movie. This allows the quiet to fill the space, to let you dwell as Anne has dwelled on the loss of Wentworth all those years ago. You can actually feel a void opening up inside you as Anne's pain becomes your own. In this adaptation Anne is always the touchstone for the audience. She is front and center, it is her POV that we take as our own. The camera work reinforces this with her always on screen while other characters are off screen, their dialogue sometimes buried in the background, not fully heard, because as Anne is our conduit we only observe what she does and a human can only see and hear so much, they're not omniscient. Yet it takes awhile for the viewer to get at what the director is trying to do. For the first few minutes all you can think of is how jittery the handheld camera work is and how close the closeups are. But then you start to realize that the agitation in the camera work reflects Anne's state of mind, and while yes, it's jittery, you realize that it also makes what would be a static image on a television screen alive. The camera and Anne have a symbiotic relationship, with the modern technology being there to reflect Anne's emotions. This can be seen when Anne looks directly into the camera. It's not gimmicky like in Mansfield Park with a wry and arched brow that makes you want to slap Frances O'Conner or just too much like in The House of Mirth where you're counting Eric Stoltz's pores, here it lays bare Anne's soul thanks to Sally Hawkins's portrayal. Sally Hawkins is such an amazing actress that the smallest facial gesture, the intimation of a tear conveys so much. So while this adaptation doesn't go for strict accuracy the feeling is correct and that can cover a plethora of sins.

Yet sometimes the lack of faithfulness results in absurdities. The main absurdity of this adaptation is Anne and the running of Bath. As in, she seriously runs all over Bath after Captain Wentworth. First she runs after him when he suddenly leaves a concert and accosts him in the entryway. Secondly she runs after him when he leaves the Elliot's residence after he was inquiring after Kellynch Hall for his sister. This then starts the main running sequence that rivals Frank Potente's race through Berlin in Run Lola Run. She runs outside and is directed to the Croft's residence where she runs into Captain Harville who gives her Wentworth's letter and sends her to the Pump Room, where the Croft's say she's just missed him, and at this point when she starts running again, you might be laughing a little, because seriously, all the running! Yes, a panting Anne finally runs into Wentworth and all is well. But seriously, ALL THAT RUNNING THOUGH! Even Anne's poor friend Mrs. Smith had to run to tell Anne the truth about Mr. Elliot and his schemes. Yes, Mrs. Smith, who in the book can't even walk due to her horrid health joins Anne on a leg of her epic race. From the Elliot residence to the Croft residence running along the Royal Crescent actually away from the main part of town and everyone's residences for those who know Bath and who know where everyone in the book lives, poor Mrs. Smith is panting out her story. She's trying to break through to a distracted Anne about Mr. Elliot and yet, all I could think of was, seriously, stop running for five seconds and hear her out! But what bothered me more than just the absurdity of this situation was that this shows a total lack of propriety. A woman in this time period would NEVER have done this. And yes, I know that by showing Anne breaking with convention it shows how her love for Captain Wentworth overrides all other concerns. But still! This is Anne Elliot! It's a total break in her character. If I wasn't so emotionally invested by this point I would have totally written off the adaptation for this need for speed. But as it is, I was there for every single second of her run panting with fervent hope that she wouldn't be too late.

Of course the observant reader will notice that this running was all necessitated by the moving of some important dialogue to an earlier part of the book. Anne's speech about women loving longest after all hope is gone is originally said to Captain Harville and overhead by Captain Wentworth, leading to him writing his soul piercing confession which reunites them near the end of the book. Instead Anne's speech is entrusted to Benwick when they are all seated at the Harville's home in Lyme Regis. In between talking about poetry and prose she decides to drop her big speech as a confidence to Benwick while Wentworth is way on the other side of the room being quite boisterous and therefore he doesn't hear it. This of course then forces the narrative to find some other contrivance for Wentworth to hope and write that letter to Anne. Here it's Wentworth coming to the Elliot's residence in Bath and asking if his sister and brother-in-law should give up the lease on Kellynch because news has reached them that Mr. Elliot and Anne are to live there once they are married. Anne of course refutes this instantly and then is interrupted by Lady Russell and the running begins. This asking after Kellynch is just too forced. Too direct. Anne and Wentworth are both stumbling in the dark unable to realize that the other is still in love with them and this just seems too active. The way Austen wrote it is sweet. It dawns on Wentworth how wrong he was and thus lays his heart bare in the only way he has at his disposal, a letter. How else is he to hope unless he overhears Anne's speech? Asking after a lease on a house, that's not romantic, it's pragmatic. Plus he goes home, then writes the letter, then has to be hunted down. It's just too much work. There's also the fact that we know how they both feel so this seems to be done just to draw out the suspense a little longer. You can't have perfect happiness without a little hurdle, and apparently the previous eight years wasn't enough for this adaptation.

But any faults can be forgiven, even the odd detail of Captain Wentworth apparently buying Kellynch Hall, by the superb cast. You couldn't hope for a better cast. Of course the casting that made me giddy was that of Anthony Stewart Head as Sir Walter Elliot. Buffy fan that I am seeing "Giles" relish playing this vain and pompous man was a dream come true. Seriously, just cast him in almost anything and I'll watch. I say almost because there's no way anyone's getting me to watch that Shondaland show Still Star-Crossed. As for the rest of the cast, yes, it's a little weird seeing The Borg as Lady Russell, but she's a far less domineering Lady Russell than other versions, and I appreciate that. But I'm not going to sit here and just list why I love every actor, and seriously, I love every single actor in this all the way down to Cully's husband from Midsomer Murders, when there are two that need to be talked of, Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones. Sally Hawkins has been the darling of independent British cinema for years, especially working with Mike Leigh, even winning a plethora of awards for their collaboration Happy-Go-Lucky. But it's her more miniseries roots that brought her to my attention first in Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, and later in The Young Visiters, Byron, and the Sarah Waters adaptations of Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith. Yet it's in Persuasion that you can see how she can inhabit a role so completely that dialogue isn't even needed to convey what she is feeling. As for Rupert Penry-Jones, well I might have written him off as a pretty boy with The Prince of Hearts, Cambridge Spies, Casanova, and his basically replacing Matthew Macfadyen on Spooks, but then I watched Whitechapel. Holy hell, that show is amazing and his portrayal of a driven yet completely OCD DI makes it one of my favorite shows ever. Persuasion mined the best of British drama and has a stellar cast that makes you shake your head in amazement that all these people are in one place at one time.

Though I feel that this review would be incomplete without me taking a shot at PBS. Oh PBS, I have so many issues with you. Seriously, SO MANY. Substandard releases could be brought up here, but instead I'm going to take you to task for your editing. Seriously!?! Stop it! Thankfully you've basically stopped editing the DVD releases because of the fan outcry for which I really have to thank Downton Abbey. But I'm still waiting for my Sally Lockhart mysteries with the sex scene back in... Instead I'm going to bitch about your broadcast editing. I watched this adaptation of Persuasion when it first aired in England, then when it finally aired the following January on PBS I was excited to watch it again but found it lacking. As in lacking all scenes with Captain Wentworth and Captain Harville talking to each other in and around Lyme Regis. I actually had to turn it off I was so enraged. Here's the thing about movies, television shows, any kind of visual broadcast: it's the vision of a person or group of persons that go to the trouble to make this beautiful show. That vision should NEVER been lessened, censored, or randomly changed not for "objectionable" reasons but to make more time for your sponsors! PBS made a pledge to bring quality television to America and more and more it's about the appearance of doing so without actually doing it. Even since Exxon left Masterpiece no longer theater has been in a steep decline and it's come to the point where I no longer even watch the channel. I can't abide editing, and as for speeding up the frame rate, which you totally did during season one of Poldark, it actually makes me physically sick. Also, why can't you air shows at the same time as England? I mean, you've fixed it with Sherlock so what gives!?! Yes, I know, I shouldn't end a review that is glowingly in favor of a production with a negative, but do you ever get the feeling that PBS isn't really involved in these shows at all and is just taking credit for what the BBC and ITV are doing?


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