Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Unpersuasive

Yesterday I watched the 2007 film version of "Persuasion" on my computer, unexpectedly finding it available and never having seen it before. Being a mild fan of the 1995 version I was curious as to how this one compared.

There is something to be said for seeing things enacted on film that so far have been viewed only inside one's head. Especially if you are interested in details of costume, setting and certain aspects of daily life that Jane Austen never stops to explain, like just how a bow is done, or want a good look at a carriage in motion. But there are certain aspects of this novel that are apparently simply not able to be expressed in film, and both versions, in the end, prove it.

The fingerprints of the characteristic preoccupations of the late 20th/early 21st century are all over these films. Historians in 100 years will watch them and see this clearly, but I don't have to wait; I have spent too much time mentally in 1815 not to be struck by it.

The 1995 version was notable for its emphasis on establishing shots of farm animals and workers, a subtle reminder of the economic basis of the good lives led by the main characters. Also for a general lack of glamour: characters (the gentry, not only the common people) often look as though they could use a shampoo, something that cannot be said of many movies. The actors, rather than being movie-star handsome, have faces that seem to belong in 1814, and they act up a storm.

The 2007 version, by contrast, is more glamorous, all smooth surfaces and lovely interiors. Yet they both start out promisingly enough, capturing the autumnal mood of the work, Anne Elliot's quietly brave despair. 2007 solves part of the exposition problem by giving Anne a diary and allowing her to make many of the author's less astringent observations; other authorial comments are put into the mouths of characters, to sometimes startlingly frank effect.

It is the last part of the book, when the action moves to Bath, that gives both filmmakers the most trouble. Jane Austen herself seems to have struggled with the ending, for an alternate chapter that she wrote and then decided did not work has survived, offering a rare glimpse into her working methods. (Both 1995 and 2007 choose to use an adapted version of this canceled chapter, evidently finding it more dramatic.)

The problem that both Jane Austen and her two film adapters seem to have struggled with is this: Anne is restricted by the codes and manners of the world she lives in. She can never see or speak to Wentworth alone except by chance, and then only in public, where she is subject to interruption by other people. She cannot call on him, but only hope he might call where she is. She cannot, even if her pride permitted, write to him, for unrelated people of the opposite sex never exchanged letters unless they were engaged. His letter to her, left on the table for her to pick up (in the ending Jane Austen chose to use) is therefore a dazzling example of his audacity and problem-solving abilities, even before it is read.

Anne Elliot's triumph, in Jane Austen's terms, is that she gets her heart's desire without violating any of her principles, without behaving improperly or appearing rude or foolish. (An Anne Elliot who did any of those things would not be Anne Elliot.) The real drama in this story is of the passionate and heartbroken spirit that rages beneath the calm, polite exterior.

That is apparently a hard thing to show in a movie. Both film versions, after starting with a well-crafted and exquisitely correct Anne Elliot, choose to dramatize her growing confidence toward the end of the story that Wentworth still loves her by having her go completely off the rails. Or to express herself, as the modern idiom would have it. Expressing oneself is so completely accepted as a virtue in modern life that it is hard to notice how pervasive this assumption is. Until you start having a proper and perfectly polite baronet's daughter of 1814 start expressing herself, and then its absurdity hits you like a slap of cold water on the Cobb at Lyme Regis.

In the 2007 version we have a lovely, dreamlike, but completely nonsensical scene near the end where Anne Elliot runs out into the street hatless (!) and runs (!) after Wentworth from the Royal Crescent (where the movie places her, though the Elliots lived in the less grand Camden Place) to the Pump Room, and back. Running all the way, like some scene that had wandered in from the cutting-room floor of Chariots of Fire. It might have worked better as a dream sequence, come to think of it, and could not have more comically trampled on the spirit of the book's ending. And let us not even mention the kiss, on the street, (!) once they have finally found each other and exchanged the look that tells all. That kiss! Why not just strip off their clothes and have sex right there in the Royal Crescent, which would have been just as historically accurate and probably more fun to watch?

In the 1995 version there is also a street kiss. Supposedly the kiss was included for American audiences and left out for British ones, something I cannot verify firsthand, though if true is certainly a point for the English. I thought the shot of the circus passing by as the happy couple finally connects was a nice touch, hinting in a possibly plausible way how magic and enchantment had finally come into Anne Elliot's life after 27 mostly arid and dreary years.

If only they could have left it at the circus. Instead, not content with the painfully ahistorical kiss, the 1995 filmmaker felt compelled to have Anne Elliot chase (!) after Wentworth as he leaves the concert. To hiss insulting remarks (!) about Mrs. Clay to her father that in the book she only thinks. To add a completely unneeded scene in which Wentworth, in front of everyone (!), at an evening-party (!) asks Sir Elliot for Anne's hand. (And the defeated William Elliot sneers and slinks away.) In short, to assume that the viewers are idiots and will not understand what has just happened unless they have just been given CliffsNotes.

Unfortunately, that might be true.

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