--2 Persuasion: Austen's Tragi-Comedy
         
Dec. 19, 2014

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Persuasion: Austen's Tragi-Comedy

April 29, 2009, 12:00 am
By Elizabeth


The 2007 Masterpiece Theater adaptation of Jane Austen's Persuasion stars Sally Hawkins as Anne, Rupert Penry-Jones as Captain Wentworth, and Anthony Stewart Head (Buffy) as Anne's father, Sir Walter Elliot. Persuasion, Jane Austen's last novel, was (in many ways) also her most straightforward. There's none of the mystery and intrigue of Pride and Prejudice, or the complex family dynamics found in Mansfield Park.


Though the ending is a happy one (when isn't it in an Austen novel?), the story is largely about the experience of unrequited love. Many years ago, Anne Elliot fell in love with Captain Wentworth, who eventually proposed. Anne rejected him due to her family's opposition towards the match. At the story's start, the two characters meet again, eight years after the incident. Wentworth has gone on to make his fortune in the Navy and has become an eligible bachelor, while Anne has languished in obscurity under the rule of her domineering family. At twenty-seven, she is long past marriageable age.


The simplistic nature of the story doesn't mean that it is either void of drama or easy to watch. Austen doesn't skimp on the agony of unrequited love. Both Wentworth and Anne are in terrible pain throughout the course of the story, though neither character is aware of the other's feelings. Because so much of the emotional power in the story is wrapped up in its subtleties, this is one instance where the television adaptation is arguably better than the book. In many ways, the actors do a better job of conveying the hidden tension of each character's emotions than Austen's prose.


The film is short - only about 93 minutes - and feels rushed in places. Many of Austen's stories rely on a long, dramatic build-up in order for a satisfying emotional payoff. In this case, I found the relatively quick pace of the film a relief. The story feels like a tragedy, right up until the last fifteen minutes of screen time. A longer run-time probably would have turned most viewers away, myself included. There are only so many scenes of Anne sobbing alone in her bedroom, or scribbling frantically in the pages of her diary that one can take. 


Another excruciating aspect of the film is its painfully honest depiction of Anne's place in society. As an unmarriageable woman, Anne is a burden to her family and her position in decent society is perilous at best. Throughout the film, she is subject to many biting remarks from her "friends" and relatives who often talk about her as though she is not there. In one scene, during a family dinner, one character remarks to another that "No one will want her [Anne] in Bath," even though Anne is seated only a few feet away. The composition of the film's shots highlights Anne's marginal position. In most scenes, she is placed in the background, while the principal action unfolds in front of her.  She is the perpetual observer, forgotten (or nearly so) by most of the other characters.


The film boasts many strong performances, including Anthony Stewart Head's portrayal of Anne's appalling father. Sir Walter is an arrogant, unforgiving, sycophantic character and Head clearly relishes such a nefarious role. Those familiar with his work as fatherly librarian Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer will find him all but unrecognizable here.  


One of the things the film does best is making the ending feel unpredictable even though it's not. All of Austen's love stories end happily, but the film somehow creates a believable sense of doubt in the mind of the audience. Anne and Wentworth are both so repressed that it seems entirely possible they might not get around to expressing their true feelings until it's too late. 


Despite the story's largely pathetic tone, the film is worth seeing. The performances are well-done and the script is faithful to the book without getting bogged down in the details. The film's subject, unrequited love, also makes Persuasion very relatable. Everyone knows what it's like to fall in love with someone who we think does not love us back. The story's ending is also one of the best out of all  Jane Austen's novels and the film's skillful dramatic pacing makes it even more satisfying on screen than it is in the original text.  



 

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