The great thing about watching a particularly good dramatization of a Jane Austen novel is hearing her sparkling wit or watching a juicy dual between two equally-matched minds. In Emma, Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s genius for comedy makes for some great TV. Persuasion, Austen’s last novel, which was completed in 1847, the same year the author died prematurely at 41, is a different animal than her more recognizable works. While there are moments of her trademark humor, the protagonist is much more passive than her iconic heroines like Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, or Elinor Dashwood. So to expertly portray Persuasion‘s lead, Anne Elliot, one would need to find an actress that can successfully portray a cowed, put-upon young woman, without coming across as dreary and a pushover. Annie’s a difficult character to play, and thankfully director Adrian Shergold has a perfect leading lady in Sally Hawkins.
The plot is similar to Austen’s other works: a young lady finds herself unlucky in love. In Annie’s case, she’s pushing the ripe old age of 27, and she’s yet to marry. When she was still an eligible singleton at 19, she rejected the marriage proposal of handsome naval officer Frederick Wentworth (Rupert Penry-Jones), after being pressured and persuaded by her foppish, spendthrift dad, Sir Walter Elliot (Anthony Head) and godmother Lady Russell (Alice Krige). In the ensuing eight years, the Elliot family fortune has dwindled because of Sir Walter’s rash spending habits, forcing the family to rent out their home. Unfortunately, Anne seems to be the only Elliot who understands the severity of their financial situation, and she’s also the only decent person in the family: her father is dismissive, and her two sisters would make Cinderella’s evil stepsisters seem supportive.
As if being suddenly house poor isn’t bad enough, Wentworth returns, now seemingly interested in catching the eye of one of Annie’s comely sisters-in-law. And because Sir Walter had no boys, his estate would go to Mr. Elliot (Tobias Menzies), Annie’s cousin, who proposes marriage. As with Austen’s other works, there are some questions of marriage, gender roles, and the inherent unfairness of the male-centered estate laws, raised in Persuasion. Because Annie is 27, she’s seen as a spinster, with a faded bloom. It can be terribly depressing to see just how constricted women’s lives were in the mid-1800s.
But as common as some themes in Persuasion are to Austen’s more famous work, the melancholy is quite striking. Even though there are isolated points of comedy – mostly because of Head’s scene-stealing, flamboyant performance – the story is very sad. And Hawkins is perfect in the role. She’s careful when she plays the part – Anne is a bruised person, but she’s not pathetic – and Hawkins remembers to maintain a glimmer of steel and fortitude which overtakes her injured, emotionally crippled persona in the action-packed final act of the film. There are moments when Anne is chronicling her feelings in a journal, and Hawkins wisely underplays these depressing scenes, but challenges the viewers to process her grief by briefly breaking the fourth wall, and looking directly at the camera, making eye contact with us. Anne is a controversial character in the Austen canon because some find her to be contemptible, pathetic, and gormless – but in Hawkins’ hands, under the expert direction of Shergold, she’s an appealing young woman who inspires empathy.
As with other BBC productions of canonical literature in the last decade, Shergold’s take on Persuasion features some stylized camera work and editing. The film isn’t drowned in millennial gloss, but the distinct visuals work well. Also, the score by BBC favorite Martin Phipps is a wonderful companion, accenting the three-hanky scenes, without indulging in Thomas Newman-like excess.
While not as immediately recognizable as Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion is a worthy entry in the Austen film canon, proving the author had range and emotional depth.