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MOVIE REVIEWS : The Sense and Sensibility of a Genteel 'Persuasion'

October 06, 1995|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Jane Austen never married, possibly never received so much as a passionate kiss, and formed her closest emotional bonds with her spinster older sister. Yet, in one of the enduring mysteries of genius, few writers have had a more acute sense of romantic psychology, or had more piercing insights into the relationship of people in love. No place in the human heart was unknown to her, which is why her popularity not only endures, but increases. Especially in Hollywood.

"Persuasion" is the first (except for the "Emma"-based "Clueless") of a projected series of Austen adaptations, and it is going to be difficult to improve on. Literate, sophisticated, bitingly funny, it's a Cinderella romance so delicious you want it never to end.

The film's source is Austen's last completed novel, published posthumously in 1818. Though not as well known as "Pride and Prejudice" or "Sense and Sensibility" (which Emma Thompson is currently filming), "Persuasion" is a favorite among readers for several reasons.

Its heroine, Anne Elliot, is 27, no longer young by the standards of Regency England. Its lovers are more emotionally experienced than is usual with Austen, probably because by this time she was more knowing herself, and its story has a poignance that director Roger Michell and screenwriter Nick Dear (both veterans of the Royal Shakespeare Company) effectively blend into the usual Austen mix of courtship and clever satire.

"Persuasion" starts with a brisk dose of Austen fun, a scathing look at Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch Hall (superbly played by Corin Redgrave, Lynn's and Vanessa's brother), an obtuse monument to snobbishness and pretension, who is at the moment having to face the unpleasant reality of a lack of funds.

Though he despises the Navy (calling it, in one of Austen's typically bracing lines, "the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction"), Sir Walter is convinced by his neighbor Lady Russell (Susan Fleetwood) to move to Bath and rent the hall to one Adm. Croft and his wife (John Woodvine and Fiona Shaw). Sir Walter and his entourage depart at once, but daughter Anne (Amanda Root) is left behind to tend to all the tedious details of moving.

The good, sensible, sympathetic daughter, Anne is used to this kind of treatment, but as she goes about her duties, including visiting her married sister Mary (Sophie Thompson), a thoroughly imaginary invalid, one thing troubles her. Now that Mrs. Croft is established in the neighborhood, her brother, Frederick Wentworth, is sure to make an appearance, and there is more than a little history between these two.

*

Eight years earlier, Anne was engaged to Wentworth, at the time a spirited young man with no prospects. Under the persuasive influence of Lady Russell, she was convinced to break off the match, and now her former beau is returning as a wealthy, supremely eligible naval captain and Anne, who can barely say his name, is terrified they will meet.

Naturally, they not only meet, but circumstances also throw them together a good deal. Though the Captain (played with enviable posture and self-possession by Ciaran Hinds) tells friends that he finds Anne "so altered, he would not have known her," it's impossible not to wonder how much of a spark remains between them. The business of "Persuasion" is to answer that question, and to show how both Anne and Wentworth deal with the obstacles society (and the appearance of possible new matches for each of them) throws in their way.

Making this story difficult for filmmakers is that Austen's world was not known for frank speech or dramatic action. Fortunately, director Michell and screenwriter Dear, working with cinematographer John Daly and a splendid troupe of actors, are up to doing what's needed. Which is capturing a nuanced society of looks and smiles, where more is implied than spoken and the subtle pressure of a hand helping a woman into a carriage can be as dramatic as a slap across the face.

And though fine period re-creations are not scarce, a telling effort has been made to make the physical atmosphere as real as possible. The actors wear little makeup, the costumes and furnishings all seem lived in, not merely worn, and no face, no matter how minor, has been anything but carefully chosen. And Dear has succeeded in his stated aim of trying to marry the wit of Austen to some of the psychological reality of Ingmar Bergman.

Because the nature of Regency society was such that Anne can't act very much on her own, can't be the mistress of her fate, an actress with the skill to win over an audience via quiet persuasiveness was necessary, and Amanda Root, another RSC veteran with great, deep, soulful eyes and a delicately expressive face, does that beautifully.

Director Michell, whose debut theatrical feature this is, does a superior job of marshaling all these resources and enforcing a uniformly engaging tone. Both for veteran Janeites and those new to the religion, "Persuasion" is a most persuasive place to be.

* MPAA rating: PG, for brief mild language. Times rating: suitable for anyone old enough to enjoy it.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

'Persuasion'

Amanda Root: Anne Elliot

Ciaran Hinds: Captain Wentworth

Susan Fleetwood: Lady Russell

Corin Redgrave: Sir Walter Elliot

Fiona Shaw: Mrs. Croft

John Woodbine: Admiral Croft

Phoebe Nicholls: Elizabeth Elliot

Released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Roger Michell. Producer Fiona Finlay. Executive producers George Faber, Rebecca Eaton. Screenplay Nick Dear, based on the novel by Jane Austen. Cinematographer John Daly. Editor Kate Evans. Costumes Alexander Byrne. Music Jeremy Sams. Production design William Dudley, Brian Sykes. Art director Linda Ward. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.

* In limited release at the Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 477-5581. Port, 2905 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar, (714) 673-6260. Esquire, 2670 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (818) 793-6149.

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