There is perhaps no better friend to the movie, TV movie or miniseries than the 19th century British novel; with their colorful characters, speakable dialogue, temporally exotic set pieces, and reservoirs of deep feeling, these books are made to be enacted. As the first entry in its refitted "Masterpiece Theatre," PBS is mounting "The Complete Jane Austen," with new and old adaptations of the six novels Austen completed -- a rock on which something like a church has been built. It has been in operation for about 200 years now, and 200 years from now, if there are still people left to put on costumes and run around the English countryside, if there still is an English countryside, they will be adapted anew.
One reason for this longevity, hazards new "Masterpiece Classic" host Gillian Anderson in her introduction to Sunday night's series opener, "Persuasion," is that Austen "makes the difference between true love and false very clear." Anderson is a different sort of host from her leather-bound predecessors -- smart but, you know, sexy. And younger, of course. She sets the film up well; it's exciting even before it begins.
The series has been cobbled together from three new adaptations that ran last spring on Britain's ITV; the same network's 1996 adaptation of "Emma" (with Kate Beckinsale); the 1995 Jennifer Ehle "Pride and Prejudice"; and a recent BBC production of "Sense and Sensibility," which gets a full-blown, two-night miniseries treatment. The ITV films -- "Persuasion," "Northanger Abbey" and "Mansfield Park" -- are more compact. And although length usually benefits such adaptations -- it gives you a better sense of the long, passing days and makes more room for the conversation that in Austen is a form of action -- they tell their stories smartly, each in its own voice.
First up, on Sunday night, is "Persuasion," the last and perhaps least effervescent of Austen's novels. It tells the story of Anne Elliot (Sally Hawkins, perfectly luminous) as she deals with the removal of her vain, debt-ridden father and older sister from the family country estate to more humble quarters in social-whirling Bath, and the return of Frederick Wentworth (Rupert Penry-Jones), a navy man who eight years earlier she had been persuaded by her father and godmother not to marry. Longing, regret and hope are the dominant notes.
Like many other literary heroines of the 19th century, Anne is good-hearted, lovely in an original way, deep, clever, wise and independent. (Though she is wiser and more independent at 27 than she was at 19 -- that is the point of the story.) She is also, common to her kind, underappreciated, her qualities obvious to people of real quality -- like us, dear viewer -- but unseen by those who value wealth, position and the superficial trappings of fashion. Anne is little regarded by her family. (There is a hypochondriac younger sister as well, well played by Amanda Hale.) "She was only Anne," wrote Austen, not for the first time ironically.
Although Austen rearranges the furniture in the room from book to book, to a different instructive end, she has a fondness for certain pieces: the reticent hero; a good-looking, well-mannered scoundrel (Tobias Menzies, who was Brutus in HBO's "Rome," takes that role here); flighty girls in over their heads; a comical older couple; strange distant relations. And of course, the heroine, for whom the course of true love is ever being diverted by questions of money and class.
This is a rather melancholy, quiet film, played out under white or gray skies and in wet weather with a camera that seems to float as if in a dream. Scenes are played out in long shot or very close-up, and a low, rolling score emphasizes the feeling of being unmoored. As directed by Adrien Shergold ("Low Winter Sun"), there is something dark even in what might otherwise play as comic relief. Where Anne's father might be conceived as merely a preening boob, Anthony Head (who will always be "late of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' " to me) goes for the rotten soul beneath the puffery. As his mirror-image oldest daughter, Julia Davis (creator of "Nighty Night") is similarly disturbing.
But this is a comedy, after all, and when girl finally gets boy, Shergold has her run full-tilt through the streets of Bath to find him, to be rewarded at the end, in extreme close-up, with what is surely the longest approach to a kiss on record.
When: 9 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)