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The film redeems modern sensibilities -- and trashes Jane Austen's book.

Alan A. Stone

The Sony Pictures Classics release of Jane Austen's last novel, Persuasion, was recently featured at the new Kendall Goldwyn/Landmark theater in Cambridge. The multiplex Kendall, with its luxury seats, large screens, and free parking, aspires to become the center for art films in the Boston area. With showings of Persuasion and the newly restored prints of Satyajit Ray's incomparable Indian movies, it is already challenging the Brattle, the Coolidge Corner, and other less well-appointed movie houses. The larger competition, however, comes from cable television, video stores, and other formats that can meet the same specialized tastes at much lower prices. In fact, as I was leaving the first night showing of Persuasion, I overheard a cluster of elderly couples complaining that they "could have stayed home and watched Masterpiece Theatre."

WGBH, the local outlet for Masterpiece Theatre, actually had some role in Persuasion, and the film has many of the earmarks of that made-for-TV genre. Nonetheless, critics have given enthusiastic reviews. It is, Rolling Stone's Peter Travers wrote, "gorgeously directed, written and acted;" Caryn James' New York Times review has been excerpted as advertising copy; and the Boston Globe has given Persuasion its highest four-star rating. Despite the carping senior citizens at the Kendall, the film has found a "go-to-the-movies" audience there and at three other local venues as well.

The enthusiasm is, in a way, understandable. Amanda Root gives a stunning performance as Anne Elliot, the plain-faced heroine. Indeed, all of the actors are, like Root, members of the British stage (many of them Shakespearean), and all acquit themselves with distinction. The director, Roger Michell, and screenwriter, Nick Dear, also have a solid background in British theater. Theater in London is the best in the English-speaking world; when the script is difficult or the playwright's ideas anachronistic, the director can often compensate with theatricality, pacing, and superb acting. The production may have little to do with the writer's original text, but the audience will be pleased. And that's the key to the success of Persuasion. For despite the high praise and box office success, it is a Classic Comics version of the original, a triumph of clever British theater over great British literature.

Persuasion, for a variety of reasons, presents insurmountable obstacles to a filmmaker. Nick Dear recognized the problems, but accepted the challenge. Reading Persuasion for his purposes, he saw it as the "first great love story," and concluded that he would do "an Ingmar Bergman kind of movie," rather than a standard period-piece adaptation of Austen. As a result, the film substitutes Bergman's brooding psychologistic style for Austen's refinement of social commentary. But in bowdlerizing her text, Dear has left a fascinating trail of compromises, omissions, and almost-comic distortions, all designed to make the Regency antique heroine, Anne Elliot, acceptable to contemporary audiences and their values.

Jane Austen was a relatively obscure early nineteenth century author until she was discovered in the middle of the twentieth century. Paradoxically, she has retained her popularity even though her values seem increasingly antithetical to the basic assumptions of modern consciousness. Her innocent heroines are usually much wiser and nobler than the men around them; they all believe, however, that submissiveness is not just a social necessity but a female virtue, which they assiduously cultivate. Anne Elliot is no exception to this rule, and had Dear's screenplay been faithful to Austen's characterization of her, the film would have been damned by the critics and died at the box office.

Jane Austen is a brilliant novelist, but she is sui generis. She is not a romantic who believes that love is a miracle that transcends the rootedness of class and convention. Indeed, all of the passions are carefully moderated. Even her satire is written in with one hand and written out with the other. As her brother observed, "Though the frailties, foibles and follies of others could not escape her immediate detection, yet even on their vices did she never trust herself to comment with unkindness."

Austen, in an often-quoted letter, described her literary efforts as working within "two inches of ivory." The self-deprecating "scrimshaw" phrase suggests a contrast with her predecessors Fielding and Richardson, who worked on huge canvasses, and with other more rebellious contemporaries, whose novels questioned the moral, political, and social order. Austen wrote about the narrow world she knew. She is famous for never portraying a conversation among men where no woman is present. And although she certainly questions and satirizes the behavior and character of those who hold places in the social order, she never questions the rightness of that order itself. Her imagination, even when it touches on love, respects the upper-middle class categories and conventions of her time. But the limits of her scrimshaw world, acknowledged by Austen herself, are counterbalanced by her disciplined sensibilities, astonishing wit, and marvelous prose.

Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Sense and Sensibility, and the admirable Emma, introduce us to a series of heroines who are obviously Austen's alter-egos, and a narrator who knows, understands, and reflects with a wisdom that can only be Austen's own. Persuasion, far from her best novel, was written when Jane Austen was a spinster of 40. Literary critics consider it her most autobiographical work. The heroine of Persuasion, Anne Elliot, feels she missed her chance in life for love. As a young woman of 19, she had rejected the dashing Captain Wentworth's offer of marriage. This under the "persuasion" of Lady Russell, who had convinced her it would be wrong to accept a man who had nothing to offer but himself and his uncertain prospects. The novel begins eight years later when Captain Wentworth, secure in his fortune, returns. In the interim, Anne Elliot's father, Sir Walter, has overspent and is forced to retrench by leasing the great family house to Captain Wentworth's sister and her husband, Admiral Croft. The Elliots cannot afford London and are forced to move to less commodious quarters in Bath.

There are uncharacteristic moments of bitter satire and condescending insensitivity expressed by the narrator in Persuasion. Critics point to the treatment of Mrs. Musgrove, the fat mother of Anne's rival for Captain Wentworth. She is made to embody the vulgarity and bad manners of a social class that Austen disdains even as she forgives. In Persuasion, the balance is tilted toward disdain. When Mrs. Musgrove weeps, the narrator finds fault with her manners. It is an "unbecoming conjunction" for a "bulky figure to weep -- which taste cannot tolerate -- which ridicule will seize." Moreover, she is weeping about a dead son who, the narrator tells us, was a ne'er-do-well who would surely have turned out badly and embarrassed his family had he survived his supposedly corrective stint in the British Navy. Mrs. Hargrove particularly offends the narrator's sensibilities because in her bulky and dolorous state she opines that her worthless son would have become the equal of the incomparable Captain Wentworth.

For the most part, in Austen's novels, people are born with character; they do not achieve or develop it without good breeding. Manners are the key to character in Austen. Her plots involve people who fail to recognize or who misjudge the character of someone crucial to them. Rarely does Austen show us someone from a new direction or revealed in a new perspective. The psychological drama of her novels occurs in moments when the person's true character is unmasked. In Persuasion, for example, Mr. Elliot -- Anne's cousin and suitor, and heir to Kellynch Estate -- is suddenly revealed as scheming and manipulative, just as the wise Anne had suspected all along.

The plot of Persuasion works entirely within these constraints. Anne Elliot, now 27, is not a changed person because of the lived consequences of her decision at 19 to reject Wentworth's offer of love. But she wishes she had chosen differently. Unfortunately, when Wentworth shows up, still handsome and charming as well as rich, Anne has aged (by the standards of her time she is nearly an old maid) and is further disadvantaged by the earlier rejection when she followed the counsel of prudence against her own feelings of love. The novel is about getting a second chance. Austen's moral, however, is not that one should choose love over prudence but that one should choose duty above either.

Unlike any of Austen's other novels, Persuasion has a borrowed plot. It is an obvious version of the Cinderella story. Anne has two sisters, both of whom are mean to her, the elder by malicious intention and pretentious design, the younger, out of selfishness and brutish insensitivity. Her father, Sir Walter, lives only for his aristocratic illusions of grandeur and has no appreciation of Anne's goodness, talents, and sensibilities. The family uses Anne as a servant. And Captain Wentworth will be her Prince Charming. There is no evil stepmother in this Cinderella story, but Lady Russell is the obvious candidate.

Austen's prose lifts this Cinderella plot with its Prince Charming happy ending -- all her novels have girl-gets-boy happy endings -- to the level of important literature. She is brilliant in her moral acuity as she creates and dissects characters within the constraints I have described.

It is typical in a Jane Austen novel that, as in a game of Patience, all the cards have to fall right; and against all the odds they do, so the heroine gets her man. But as Nabokov has critically observed, many of the important moments of her plots take place parenthetically. For example, Austen will lapse into the epistolary form and the most dramatic action of her novel is described in letters. Nabokov is critical of Austen for this, believing that she was taking the easy way out. Persuasion makes no great use of letters, but the narrator does step back and give the reader a general account of the most intense scenes; Austen does not directly enact them. Most importantly, when Anne and Wentworth finally realize that each has remained in love with the other, their first rapprochement is described to the reader by the narrator in that impersonal way. Still, the overall result is quite satisfactory, and one might say to Nabokov, who stopped at nothing in his own novels, that it is of a piece with the impeccable discretion that is Austen's style.

But perhaps confirming Nabokov's point, there exists an alternative original ending to Persuasion in which Austen attempted to depict the moment of rapprochement between Anne and Captain Wentworth, and the prose becomes purple:

    --It was a silent, but a very powerful dialogue; --on his side, supplication, on her's acceptance. --Still, a little nearer--and a hand taken and pressed--and `Anne, my own dear Anne!' --bursting forth in the fullness of exquisite feeling--and all Suspense and Indecision were over--They were reunited .

Austen rejected her original ending, but its flawed depiction indicates the kind of difficulty that beset screenwriter Dear, who took it upon himself to do what Austen could not. To accomplish his task he ignored that fact that Persuasion was a period piece. It describes a particular historical moment, in 1814, and its characters belong to that moment. The real heart of the novel is Austen's nuanced commentary about those characters, their manner, and their morals. Indeed, the intrigue and interest of the novel comes about because Anne, the heroine, is so much a refined woman of that time that she cannot even imagine herself making overtures or taking any direct or purposeful action when Captain Wentworth shows up eight years after she rejected his proposal. She is locked into passivity, not by some neurosis, but by an excess of manners and refinement.

Events unfold around her and nothing happens by her doing. Her inability to act creates not only the suspense of the plot but also the relief and rectitude of the happy ending. Anne, who like her creator Austen despises anything "gross," would never have spoken the line given her in the film where she has the last word in a conversation about which of the sexes is more fickle. Captain Harville, Wentworth's good friend, has argued for women's fickleness claiming that every author he has ever read describes women as fickle, and then adds in gentlemanly fashion: but you might say, "all the authors are men." This argument-stopping line is given to Anne in the film. It is apparently so central to the director's interpretation and deemed so appealing to modern audiences that it is featured in the film's trailer. But no Austenian heroine would speak that line and embarrass a gentleman.

Anne, though more mature than other Austen heroines, has -- like them and the author -- led a cloistered life. Anne is strong in that she, unlike anyone else in her family, is sensible; she knows right from wrong, the true value of things, and how to deal with a crisis. She is the only one who realizes that the family cannot continue to live beyond its means pretending to an aristocratic splendor it cannot afford. She recognizes her father's weaknesses and her sisters' failings, and in the novel the narrator makes it clear that Anne has a view -- the correct view -- on every matter from the very first. But she never asserts herself. Anne's passivity is willed, in keeping with the importance she places on the feminine virtues of modesty and humility. Her character remains constant throughout the novel, and the cards, as in a successful game of Patience, fall her way. Unable to accept this period-piece character, director Michell understands his heroine as undergoing a meaningful change in the course of the film. She begins as a woman "who has no voice . . . and who slowly learns to speak."

Amanda Root accepted her director's description of the part. "It's right that she doesn't say a lot [in the first half of the film] because that's the kind of woman she is." Early in the film she is a brooding presence, later a force to be reckoned with, asserting her voice against her family and rejecting Lady Russell's advice. Not only does Austen's heroine not change and become empowered by assertion and independent action, she insists to Wentworth at the end of Austen's novel that even if Lady Russell had given her the wrong advice she was correct in following it and refusing his earlier offer of marriage. That speech does not occur in the film because it is so completely out of keeping with the theme of empowerment and voice; slogans for our day, not for Austen's. Austen's Anne, in the fullness of her good fortune, tells her lover, "I was right in submitting to her [Lady Russell's] persuasion and if I had done otherwise I should have suffered more in continuing the engagement than I did even in giving it up, because I should have suffered in my conscience. I have now, as far as such a sentiment is allowable in human nature, nothing to reproach myself with; and if I mistake not, a strong sense of duty is no bad part of a woman's portion." Taken out of historical and literary context, those sentences might make a reader gag. But they are Austen's moral sentiments. She was, after all is said and done, the seventh child of the Reverend George Austen, and she lived and died "fearful of giving offense to God" and to the upper-middle class values of her time.

The liberated Anne Elliot of the film is surrounded by characters who, because of the film's pacing and theatricality, are caricatures more reminiscent of Thackeray than Austen.

Anne's father (Colin Redgrave) is a silly fop, her elder sister (Phoebe Nicholls) is an evil witch, her younger sister (Sophie Thompson) is a spoiled child gone bad, and Captain Wentworth (Ciaran Hinds) is given little to do but stand around looking tall, dark, and handsome. The strongest suit in this film is the casting. Appearance had to be everything because neither the director nor the screenplay writer found a way to create nuances of character on film as Austen could in words. Here is Austen's description of Lady Russell early in the novel as she tries to help the Elliots figure out how to retrench:

    She was a woman rather of sound than of quick abilities, whose difficulties in coming to any decision in this instance were great, from the opposition of two leading principles. She was of strict integrity herself, with a delicate sense of honour; but she was as desirous of saving Sir Walter's feelings, as solicitous for the credit of the family, as aristocratic in her ideas of what was due to them, as any body of sense and honesty could well be. She was a benevolent, charitable, good woman and capable of strong attachments; most correct in her conduct, strict in her notions of decorum, and with manners that were held a standard of good-breeding.

These few sentences tell us more about Lady Russell and Jane Austen's sensibilities than can be discovered in this entire film. Lady Russell, whose persuasion is so central to the novel, will be remembered because of Susan Fleetwood's striking face with its high cheekbones and its generous nose and mouth. Henry Haytor (Isaac Maxwell-Hunt), who plays a small but significant role in the novel, has one wild-eyed moment to stunningly if incomprehensibly establish his character. Other parts of the film will be unintelligible to those who do not know the novel: the motives of Anne's cousin and suitor, Mr. Elliot, are unfathomable, and Captain Wentworth's behavior towards the Musgrove daughters is never explained.

Despite all of these obvious limitations, the film is a critical success. How is this to be explained? The answer lies with screenwriter Dear. He clearly recognized the problems posed by Austen's text: "One of the major difficulties was trying to replace the wit that's in Jane Austen's narrative, but which you can't use because it's almost all in the author's voice telling us about the characters." Rather than try to find a voice for Jane Austen, he gave us a modern love story and looked for his inspiration to Ingmar Bergman. More importantly, perhaps, he made Austen's antiquated Cinderella into the strong, assertive, and independent woman who becomes the mistress of her own fate. The redoubtable Emma Thompson will appear in a film of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility come Christmas time, and I suspect we shall see yet another empowered heroine, and precious little of Jane Austen's astonishing gift.

Originally published in the December 1995/January 1996 issue of Boston Review

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