With Gillian Anderson hosting Masterpiece Theatre, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart thinks PBS should run A For Andromeda and The Quatermass Experiment.
Our review of Persuasion, published April 10th, 2000, is also available.
"A weak spirit which is always open to persuasion, first one way and then the other, can never be relied upon."—Capt. Frederick Wentworth, on looking for a wife with "firmness of character"
"I would never suppose that constancy is known only by women, but the one claim I shall make for my own sex is that we love longest when all hope is gone."—Anne Elliot
What do you think of when you think of Masterpiece Theatre? If the word "talky" comes to mind, along with migraines from just thinking about it, PBS wants to change that. They've trotted out a new host, Gillian Anderson, who starred in that literary masterpiece The X-Files and is best known for being almost exactly unlike Alistair Cooke. They're also livening up the adaptations, starting with a series of "The Complete Jane Austen."
Jane Austen, of course, is a good choice because she's an author you, um, may have heard of, even if your idea of a literary adaptation runs more to The Bourne Identity. Her works have inspired a few movies, too. The Jane Austen season started out with Persuasion, a 2007 TV film based on her 1817 book.
Starting off, I'll admit that I have read Austen's best-known work, Pride and Prejudice, but Persuasion is new to me.
Facts of the Case
When Lady Russell pays a visit, Anne Elliot (Sally Hawkins, Little Britain) is watching over the packing of the contents of the family mansion, Kellynch. Her father and sister have racked up debts, and the only way they might become solvent is to rent out the family estate.
Anne's father, Walter (Anthony Head, Buffy The Vampire Slayer), isn't keen on the idea. After all, the new tenant's only an admiral, not a baronet like himself. Anne's not so crazy about it either, because Admiral Croft's brother-in-law, Capt. Frederick Wentworth (Rupert Penry-Jones, Match Point), will be moving in with them. Anne was once engaged to Wentworth, but her father didn't like the idea; after all, Wentworth's not even an admiral. On the other hand, Anne does point out to Lady Russell that Wentworth has made his fortune and hasn't spent his way into insolvency.
All that plot is established in seven minutes. What follows is a series of awkward meetings between Anne and Wentworth. The 27-year-old woman who's afraid she might not find a mate looks on as Louisa Musgrove sets her sights on Wentworth, and everyone in the vicinity decides the match is made. Meanwhile, Anne's family tries to match her up with wealthy cousin William, who will inherit Kellynch.
Will there be a happy ending? Yes. Of course. The novel wouldn't have survived nearly 200 years if there weren't.
Is this going to be one of those long, talky Masterpiece Theatre adaptations, making sure every line from the book works its way into the telecast? At 93 minutes, the answer's obviously no. Even before the plot's summed up, you'll get a good idea of how it's going to be done as Anne walks through Kellynch. The camera tracks her movements as she passes an inkpot and dips her quill in and notes her reflection in a mirror that's being carted out.
In short, there's always motion and activity. It appears that many long passages have been cut to a few gestures, such as the way Anne looks at a box that contains her letters from Wentworth, or the scene in which Wentworth watches Anne play the piano, but is gone when she looks up. When there's a voiceover of Anne's thoughts (or, in one case, the text of a letter from Wentworth), there's something going on underneath, even if it's just a coach trip with Anne looking glum in the carriage. The camera even gets a little Blair Witch shaky on occasion, such as when Anne looks back on Kellynch as her coach drives away. Here, that sort of shakiness reflects the shakiness of Anne's feelings, rather than some idiot trying to learn a camcorder.
How's it work? A lot better than Blair Witch. Director Adrian Shergold has modernized the look of the production, but it still keeps the essence of Jane Austen and stays faithful to the period. Shergold even turns the expected final scene, in which Anne and Wentworth declare their love for each other, into a chase of a sort. Run, Anne, run. In short, it's lively, and it'll keep your attention.
This Reduced Austen Company version could have turned into a joke, however, without strong performances from Sally Hawkins as Anne and Rupert Penry-Jones as Wentworth. They don't smolder with romantic tension; instead, they come across believably as two nervous, awkward people, bringing a touch of real life into the fantasy world of Jane Austen.
I didn't have any quibbles with the picture, but I noticed a few lines dropping out here and there. This was especially distracting when I was trying to learn who's who.
The DVD comes in a handsome case that might pass for an actual book on your shelf. However, there are no extras. Some background on Jane Austen and Persuasion would have been nice; they didn't even include Gillian Anderson's intro.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One thing that'll drive you up a tree is the characters' tendency to have conversations along the sea wall, with waves and sea spray whipping at them. It's visually interesting, yes, but not very realistic.
If you're looking for a totally faithful, line-by-line adaptation of the sort that Masterpiece Theatre has traditionally been associated with, this Persuasion might not be very persuasive. However, if you've read a Jane Austen novel or two a long time ago, or want an introduction to her style of mannered romance, it does a good job, capping with an ending that brilliantly visualizes Anne's internal struggles to rise above persuasion.
Not guilty, although I will note that the bare-bones release might not be
persuasion enough for a purchase. I'll have to stop now; my quill has run out of
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