Sorry for the late posting of this review - I have been plagued by technical gremlins all day!
What a shame …. ITV’s Persuasion started out so promisingly, but in its ‘bold’ attempt to differentiate itself from its (superior) 1995 BBC predecessor, this version was rendered something of a hodge-podge.
What I find most concerning in Adaptation, is where a production is clearly ‘unmotivated’- in the sense that the over-arching directorial vision, is not pertaining to some key new reading of the source text, which might perhaps offer us a fresh, even challenging new perspective. But huge changes are wrought nevertheless – and for no clear, apparent purpose.
This was most definitely the case with ITV’s Persuasion, which did not seem to have any specific interpretative steer in the hands of screenwriter Simon Burke or director Adrian Shergold.
Indeed, the primary focus of this production – and the same can be said perhaps of the ITV’s Billie Piper-starring Mansfield Park which opened the ITV Jane Austen season – appeared to be the casting of the main female protagonist. Producer David Snodin has commented that recruiting Sally Hawkins to play Anne Elliot was the most important first step in this adaptation, and that everything else was then built around her. Securing Hawkins, who is one of our greatest up and coming actresses, was undeniably a coup. As was signing up Spooks star Rupert Penry-Jones as her love interest Captain Frederick Wentworth, the man Anne refused eight years previous, based on faulty advice, but she has loved him ever since, and regrets that fateful decision.
Certainly both actors have rewarded the Persuasion production team with fine, nuanced performances - although Hawkins's Anne, while capturing her maturity and sensitivity, is a little more passive than I expected. However, from an utterly shallow perspective, Penry-Jones makes for a very fetching Austen hero.
But other acting performances were far less assured. Amanda Hale as Anne’s irritating sister Mary Musgrove, was particularly strange, seeming to combine a very third-rate impression of Sophie Thompson, who made for a much better Mary in the BBC’s 1995 Persuasion, mixed with the odd physical quirks and mannerisms of Julie Walters’s Mrs Overall from Acorn Antiques. Meanwhile, Sam Hazeldine who played Mary’s long-suffering husband Charles, tried to play this for laughs, and failed abominably. (It’s wrong of course to keep comparing this adaptation with its BBC predecessor, but Simon Russell Beale, who is one of Britain’s most brilliant actors, made for such a wonderful Charles). The remaining Musgroves were passable. Certainly Louisa and Henrietta, Charles’s giggly, flighty sisters, (Jennifer Higham and Rosamund Stephen) were as giggly and flighty as could possibly be – but I did feel the actresses were each cast as the wrong sister.
The Elliot family were quite splendid in this production. Anthony Head was a perfectly pompous and vain Sir Walter Elliot, obsessed with appearances – especially his own. He was the standout scene-stealer in this Persuasion’s supporting cast. Julia Davis made for a delightfully snidey and arrogant Elizabeth Elliot, whose nose was pushed firmly out of joint by the attentions of her cousin, William Elliot, to ‘plain’ Anne. William Elliot was played here by Tobias Menzies, who is an actor I enjoy immensely. But I had a mixed response to his performance here. He was suitably smug and creepy, but also charismatic – very much so in fact. But at times I found his delivery a little one-paced and flat – although his proposal to Anne was one of the high points of the drama. Unfortunately, the adaptors fail to make much of the first time he encounters Anne, on the wind-swept Cobb at Lyme. This is a turning point in the novel, as Wentworth observes Elliot's admiration of Anne, and perceives for himself, her 'bloom', thus re-igniting his passionate love for her.
As for the remaining cast, performances which warrant mention are Peter Wight as a hearty Admiral Croft, Joseph Mawle as a pleasant Captain Harville and Alice Krige, (the Borg Queen no less), who put in a strong performance as Anne’s kindly but snobbish godmother Lady Russell.
Adrian Shergold’s direction was both one of the production’s strong points, and yet at times, a genuine weakness. I rather liked the fly-on-the-wall intensity of much of the hand-held camera-work. This contemporary ‘docu-drama’ style can be horribly over-used in some productions, but Shergold maintained just the right balance here, ensuring the audience had close proximity to the heroine, charting her feelings, her moods, her observations as someone flung to the margins for most of the action. At one point, we are even aware of Anne’s breathing, as she wanders forlornly through the shadowy corridors of Kellynch in the opening sequence.
However, Shergold also over-played this closeness. At times, the camera was positioned too close to Anne’s face for comfort. The romantic denouement is a classic example, when we wait an age for the lovers to finally kiss, and for a single tear to roll sadly down Anne’s cheek – indeed, we waited so long, that I unthinkingly began inspecting Sally Hawkins’s dentistry, as the camera continued to linger on her face, mouth a-gape.
Another of Shergold’s initially promising directorial tricks sours a little as the production progresses. To ensure the audience is better acquainted with Anne’s thoughts and feelings, Anne is seen to write her journal throughout, accompanied by voice-over, and as a parting shot, she then stares full-faced, straight into the camera. This Brechtian device, aiming to engage the audience, soon began to grate, expanding beyond her journal-writing to little sidelong glances, shared with us throughout the action. Notably, Anne’s voice-over whilst writing her journal suddenly ceased, however, once she was reconciled with Wentworth, signifying perhaps her own sense of closure, her recovery from the grief and confusion at her loss in love, which had dogged her throughout the narrative.
Shergold also includes a slightly cheesy moment. During a visit by the Musgroves and herself to the Crofts at Kellynch Hall, Anne Elliot is playing the piano, illuminated by myriad candles. Captain Wentworth is then shown to be staring at her, alone, in stern, reflective silence – and for some time too. She looks again and he has disappeared. Was this a vision or reality?
Even though Shergold appears to favour close, even claustrophobic camera-work, at other appropriate points in the narrative, Shergold occasionally deploys wider, establishment shots, and enjoys using the camera to peer over banisters, to hover above its characters, and even to encircle them, as when the finally reunited lovers dance together on the lawns of Kellynch Hall – which in this version has been awarded to Anne as a wedding present by Captain Wentworth – although it is quite remarkable that a naval captain had won THAT much ‘Spanish Gold’ in the course of his naval adventures. And what about the estate having been entailed? How come it was ever sold at all? Oh well …
Shergold often utilised a suitably chill, stony-grey palette of colours throughout the production, aided and abetted by the dank British weather which appears to have pervaded Persuasion, but fortunately to good effect. There is an Autumnal feel to Austen’s final novel, and the ambience of this production certainly highlighted this. Some interior shots, however, were a little too well lit, most especially at the Kellynch dinner party, hosted by the Crofts, which eschews the soft-toned candlelit effect most often utilised more faithfully in period dramas.
Locations were very well chosen in this production. It was nice to see Bath in all its splendours – most especially an early Bath scene when Anne speaks with her cousin William at the Pump Room. There is perhaps a little over-reliance on the camera panning the grand, sweeping curve of the Royal Crescent, as a convenient synecdoche for quintessential Bath. But overall, Bath is nicely rendered, and again, is washed through with drizzly British weather to suitably melancholic effect. Kellynch Hall (Neston Hall)and Uppercross (Sheldon Manor) are also nicely represented, but the crowning achievement in terms of location is actually the usage of Lyme and the Cobb, amidst thrashing sea-storms, which must have made for a hair-raising filming experience for the actors and crew, amidst high winds and dramatic crashing waves.
The real problems with this adaptation, as stated earlier, reside in the overall narrative structure, which deviates a little too sharply, but with no true purpose, away from Austen’s original text.
For example, having built up Anne as our primary standpoint character throughout, there is an unexpected and not entirely welcome switch just past the midway point, to a vague attempt at a ‘two-hander’ as we are suddenly made privy to Captain Wentworth’s thoughts and opinions. This is achieved with two scenes set in Lyme, once Anne is in Bath, where Wentworth converses with his friend Captain Harville about how he has inadvertently become ‘attached’ to Louisa Musgrove, in the eyes of others, due to his amicable attentions towards her. Indeed, a marriage is expected by all. A later scene, on the sea-drenched Cobb, has Wentworth bemoan to Harville, how he might have missed his chance with the woman he truly loves, who is ‘perfection’ itself. Harville, recognising his feelings for Anne, assures him that Louisa has now found love elsewhere – with Captain Benwick. He then suggests Wentworth head to Bath, and Anne.
In such a way, Captain Wentworth’s feelings for Anne are made abundantly clear at a much earlier stage than the novel, which only follows Anne’s consciousness, as we only learn of Wentworth’s story once he tells Anne his version of events. Arguably, such certainty reduces the suspense, and slightly cheapens our ‘closeness’ to Anne, which has been meticulously built up throughout, as we are suddenly in the vantage position of holding more information than our heroine. It is a puzzling and surprising position to be in at this juncture, and seemingly at odds with the overall trend of this adaptation, which is to offer us such close communion with our heroine.
Of course, by introducing Wentworth’s feelings about Anne with these invented scenes, the writer is ensuring we are not faced with excess exposition at the close of the film – but part of the ‘joy’ of Persuasion is our journeying throughout this love story with Anne, uncertain, questioning, sometimes hopeful, other times cast down. We are firmly on board her emotional rollercoaster. Like many of Austen’s love stories, there is also an element of ‘detective work’ involved too, as we try to ‘read’ the hero, second-guess his feelings, his intentions towards the heroine.
In 1995, Andrew Davies orchestrated in Pride and Prejudice a classic two-hander, ensuring abundant ‘extra’ Darcy, to ensure the audience warmed towards this seemingly cold, buttoned-up man – but he had the space and the time to integrate these fresh aspects of the narrative. A 90-minute tele-film does not have that luxury, and is more sharply-focused if, as in Austen’s novel, the narrative sticks closely to a single protagonist.
A further major change implemented in this production, is the utilisation of Austen’s original but discarded ending. Here, Captain Wentworth is assigned the onerous task by Admiral Croft, of asking Anne whether she is likely to marry William Elliot, as suggested by popular speculation, as if the newly-weds are to take possession of Kellynch Hall, then the Crofts need to seek out new lodgings. Anne’s answer, negating any attachment to Mr Elliot, leads to Wentworth’s proposal. In Austen’s original, this takes place at the Croft’s rented residence in Bath. Here, to ensure added suspense, the conversation takes place amidst the furore of the Musgroves arriving at the Elliot house on Camden Place. The lovers are thus interrupted before Wentworth can fully react to the news that Anne is free. He hastens off.
We then have a ludicrous, even farcical chain of events. Anne chases after him, but is first stopped by her supposedly invalid school-friend Mrs Smith with a rambling explanation of Mr William Elliot’s evil designs against her family. This revelation is swiftly cast aside, and never revisited, serving only the singular purpose of ‘obstructing’ Anne’s path to Wentworth. She then runs to Harville’s lodgings, has a conversation with Captain Harville, and is given a letter from Wentworth, in which he proposes. It is hard to see when he had the time to write this letter. Was it pre-written? Because surely he could not have belted home, written the letter and shot out again, in just the time it takes for Anne to run after him, even with a glancing distraction from Mrs Smith.
Anne then runs to the Pump Rooms, (by now her chasing about like a wild hare has become quite exhausting for the viewer, if only through mocking laughter), where she encounters the Crofts, then runs back home, where apparently Wentworth has since headed, begging the question why he ever left in the first place. This renders Anne’s exertions completely unnecessary, merely a spurious addition to the plot, and a desperate attempt to inject a level of uncertainty, of delayed gratification, to their romance. Of course Anne and Wentworth are united, as we always knew they would be, particularly since we are aware of his deep feelings for her, as much as we know the heartbreak she has suffered over her love for him.
Austen’s favoured ending was so much better, and it is unfathomable why this set of adaptors chose to ignore it. Perhaps the adaptors wanted a more direct personal confrontation between the lovers? Hence he is cold and suspicious but melted by her revelation that she does not love Mr Elliot. In the original, of course, the romantic climax is ushered in by Anne famously conversing with Captain Harville, about the ‘constancy’ of love, as experienced by men and women. It is a wonderful, intense passage, and plotwise, hugely important too, as Captain Wentworth overhears it all whilst writing a letter, and is deeply moved. He then writes a letter to Anne, which he ensures she reads, while he leaves the room, waiting for her response in the street.
In the ITV Persuasion, Captain Wentworth never gets to hear Anne’s speech, as it is moved backwards through time to a conversation she has instead, at Lyme, with Captain Benwick, whose fiancée had died the year before. It is awkwardly inserted, clearly because the speech itself is so iconic, so suggestive of Persuasion, and omitting it would be akin to cutting ‘To Be or Not To Be’ in Hamlet. Meanwhile Wentworth laughs merrily, completely oblivious to Anne’s heart-felt comments.
A further unproductive change between text and screen includes, (as in the BBC 1995 production), a scene set in Bath, when Anne Elliot is seen to literally chase Captain Wentworth when he quits a concert they are both attending, in disgust, once he has heard the rumour of Anne’s ‘closeness’ to her cousin William. I certainly don’t object to Anne’s pursuit of Wentworth on grounds of propriety – although no well brought-up woman would behave in this manner in Austen’s day – but adaptors miss a trick here, as the concert scene, as written by Austen, is packed full of nuance, suspense and misunderstanding.
And oddly, here is yet another ITV Austen adaptation which closes with the leading pair waltzing together. It’s a slightly silly and trite ending, for what should be one of literature’s greatest love stories. Indeed, to my mind, and I’m probably in a minority here, this is Austen’s most resonant and lovely romance of all.
I am not one for close textual fidelity in adaptation, but I do strongly believe that any wholesale changes or plot distortions must be in service to a wider interpretative concept, while preserving narrative cohesion, dynamism and momentum. This is why I can accept the huge changes wrought in Patricia Rozema’s much-reviled 1999 Mansfield Park, for example, as I can see that there is a directorial vision guiding this production, ensuring a rationale for these drastic alterations, even if, as has been subsequently shown, they have proved unpopular with much of the core Austen fanbase. This is brave direction, in my opinion, and successful or otherwise, is an important ingredient in text-to-screen adaptation, ensuring the genre maintains vitality and verve.
ITV’s Persuasion failed dramatically in this regard. This was an attractive film, but it lacked heart and lacked interpretative direction.
For certain, Hawkins and Penry-Jones cannot be faulted for their rendition of this love story. I enjoyed the subtle chemistry between them. I particularly liked the moment when Louisa suffers her ‘fall’ at the Cobb. Anne and Wentworth both work together in this instance; there is a moment of unspoken, lucid communication between them. Even better was their first unexpected meeting in Bath when they discuss Louisa’s impending marriage to Benwick, and he reveals his inferior opinion of Louisa. There is a delightful and touching closeness of minds between Anne and Wentworth in this scene, a natural intimacy, masked as it is by insecurity, uncertainty. It is acted beautifully and meaningfully.
The key problems with this production are most definitely not then due to the leading actors, but are instead inherent in the unnecessary alterations to the narrative structure, which weaken the adaptation’s dramatic effect. The William Elliot/Mrs Clay conspiracy is underplayed and under-explained, but this is partly because Austen herself seemed a little uncertain in this regard too. Even so, Mrs Smith’s sudden recuperation is mind-boggling, (or perhaps is meant as an astonishing proof of the efficacy of Bath’s waters). The 'villainous' subplot was thus used only as a temporary roadblock – and an extremely ineffective one at that – to Anne’s romantic resolution.
The ITV Jane Austen season has been a decidedly mixed bag. I had hoped that Persuasion would be my pick of the three (Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion), and even had high hopes of just this, during the first forty minutes or so of transmission. But the narrative felt rushed and uneven, and some of the acting amongst the supporting cast, was decidedly below par. It was stacks better, of course, than ITV’s dreadful Mansfield Park, but I would have to say that Davies’s Northanger Abbey, for all its many faults, was probably the best of a pretty mediocre bunch. ITV’s reputation for period drama has always been seen as middling, in comparison to the BBC’s super-confident, slick output, which has ensured the BBC brand is synonymous with quality in this genre. The BBC’s position as the foremost producer of heritage drama certainly remains undinted, if not heightened, as a result of ITV’s foray into this territory.