Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tales of Persuasion

I came late to Jane Austen fandom. Not too surprisingly, although her more famous works such as Sense and Sensibility as well as Pride and Prejudice deserve plenty of applause, it is two other works that grabbed my heart. Oddly, or not, my faves are the lady's first and last novels.

Northanger Abbey was her very first novel, and dealt with a the young Catherine Moreland venturing into the real world with little same her own tiny experiences coupled with what she'd gleaned from novels.

Persuasion, her last, tells of Anne Elliot -- a much older (but still young) lady, one who has seemingly missed her chance at love and as a result happiness. Years before the story's beginning, Anne was in love with a Captain Wentworth, a then-penniless officer of bright prospects in the Royal Navy. Her late mother's friend, Lady Russell, persuaded her to reject the Captain's offer of marriage. Now, she is hardest-working and least-appreciated daughter of a spendthrift baronet forced to rent his estate to make ends meet -- and the admiral to whom he rents the place is wed to the same Captain Wentworth's sister! More, in the interim, he has made his fortune with prize money while Anne is now viewed as a spinster.

What follows is a seemingly gentle, but subtly tempestuous tale of these two somewhat-older persons finding each other once again. Austen rarely takes an obvious or easy way to the climax of her novels. This shows itself no exception. For example, we learn that Anne need not have been a spinster at all. She had another offer of marriage, and looks to be perhaps gaining another two -- one from a like-minded widower, another from a charming and intelligent cousin. This is important because in Austen women are in some real way always the equals of men. Equal in foolishness or venality, maybe -- or equal in passion and strength. In this case, the point is that Anne need not have pined for Wentworth yet she did. And being the eminently sensible, utterly reliable, demonstrably self-possessed person that she is -- why should that be? For the same reason Wentworth, a very handsome and wealthy man considered pleasing by virtually every girl he meets, does little more than flirt while hovering around Anne's life, often glaring at her or avoiding her yet never roaming far. Why? Because these two love each other with a depth quite beyond their petty errors or misjudgments.

This is, IMHO, one of the world's great love stories.

And recently I've watched two different adaptations of it, both made for television. Both are also excellent. Interestingly, both are also very different from one another, yet faithful to the source material. Bravo on both counts (or all three -- depending upon how one looks at it).

The 1995 version stars Amanda Root and Cieran Hinds as the once and future lovers. While Hinds is an actor I admire greatly (he'll be in the next two Harry Potter flicks incidentally), this was the first time I was aware of Ms. Root. She frankly deserves more acclaim than I think she has received, but then that might be a false impression. Evidently she works long and often in Britain.

The 2007 version stars Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones as the leads, and they likewise make a wonderful set of lovers. I'll admit to playing some favorites in both cases. For the one, I prefer Hinds' Captain Wentworth while for the other my choice would be Hawkins' Anne Elliot. Not to put down either one of their partners, who are very good and admirably suit their roles.

What is interesting is how the two productions approached their material. Here is a simple one -- the naval officers in the earlier version wear their uniforms, whereas the latter do not. This reflects the more naturalistic appearance of the '95 production. Clothes look more worn, candlelight is noticeably dimmer, and the action correspondingly more subtle (this is helped by the fact that Mr. Hinds is one of those actors who can do with a glance what many others might need a soliloquy to accomplish -- Ms. Hawkins is another one). Yet the action of the later version is more telling, often more exciting. The visit to the shore ( such an important event) takes place in bad weather, unlike the relative calm and sunny day of the first version (well, second--but I haven't seen the still earlier one). The long and weary journey to tell news of an accident is shown rather than skipped over, while Anne's sense of having actually gone through these trips is stronger. Likewise, the climax of the tale involves Anne actually racing to find Wentworth in the wake of receiving his letter -- she is literally breathless as she says her lines, and you can see how she trembles between her own self control and the passion of that moment.

In the '07 version the story veers between the POV of Anne and of Captain Wentworth himself. As a result, he is much less a cypher and we follow his own personal journey. Unfortunately, this costs some set up of essential exposition regarding the intentions of Anne's cousin. Such is handled much better in the '95 adaptation. Likewise there is a certain "sameness" to many of the male cast in the later one, in terms of general look and dress especially. Not so the earlier one, when it is easy to tell all characters apart at a glance -- not only in terms of looks but in dress.

At the same time, it is difficult not to see how some characters are made more overtly sinister in the '95 film, probably against the actual text. Lady Russell, for example, comes across as rather a villain in the earlier production -- a self-satisfied snob playing with Anne's life according to rules that have precious little to do with Anne's happiness. The later version is someone much more benign, who feels some guilt over the consequences of her persuasion. She has an agenda, to be sure, and one at odds with our own hopes but we also get the feeling that she would probably end up very pleased with how Anne's life ended up.

Likewise Anne's father, an arrogant fool as in the book, is interestingly different in the two versions. One has him as something of a ridiculous fop, pathetic in his own way and surrounded (by preference) with women as silly and petty as himself. Another dimension seemed to exist for the second (or third) version, albeit a subtle one. He appears to be treating his favorite (and most snobbish, like himself) daughter as a surrogate wife -- not in terms of sexuality but in terms of a partnership. He frankly comes across as a darker individual, and Anne a more impressive person having resisted his ways.

Both versions come up with endings not really in the novel. In '95 they made much of Captains having their wives aboard, and we see at the end Anne Wentworth beside her husband at sea. It was a lovely image of freedom from their pasts. The filmmakers twelve years later ended with the Captain giving his bride a special wedding gift -- the house where she'd grown up and which she clearly loved dearly. It felt more like a fairy tale ending, as well as a testament not only to Wentworth's esteem of his Anne, but his understanding of her.

In short, I recommend both, having appreciated both and remain grateful to those who created both versions.


Lost Wanderer said...

While Northanger Abbey is my least favourite of all Jane Austen works, Persuasion is my most favourite. I love it more than all her books put together. It is an amazing love story, and just that letter that Wentworth writes to Anne is enough to have me swooning over it. :)

As for the movies - ITV production annoyed me very much, because it deviates much more from the book than the original BBC version. However, there were things and characters in it that I liked more. Though not Anne Elliot. Actually, I don't think either production got the right Anne, but if I had to choose, I would go for the BBC one. Whereas I liked Captain Wentworth in both productions.

But regardless of the movies, which are both entertaining, the book is just a treasure.

Zahir Blue said...

Heh heh -- guess that is what they mean about "different strokes." Of course isn't it true that we *all* want to see that one more adaptation of a favorite novel, that one more version that'll get it even better?