Thursday, May 15, 2008

Random DVD round up 2: PERSUASION (2007)

Retrench!Anne Elliot is a well-born woman who is persuaded not to marry her poor lover Frederick Wentworth. Years later he returns from the Napoleonic wars a rich and eligible match, while her own family has frittered away its fortune and moved to Bath. Anne feels sure that Wentworth will not forgive her and is pained by his new attachment to her young cousin. Meanwhile, Wentworth is still drawn to Anne despite his broken heart and her vain, proud, disdainful family....

I am a great fan of Jane Austen, and of Persuasion in particular. I prefer the modulated tone of the novel and the idea that a heroine can make a profound mistake and suffer, not for a short while, but for many years. Austen goes beyond witty portraits of weak-minded people to show just what profound harm can come of well-meaning prejudice. In earlier novels, Austen mocks society but never questions the fundamental rules by which it operates. In PERSUASION, she shows us an older heroine who knows her mind, is more pro-active, and resolves upon an action against society's guidance.

Simon Burke's adaptation of the novel is disappointing. I have no objection to curtailing the action to 90 minutes - it is, in fact, a rather simple story - but he could easily have done without some scenes and characters and gone for a distilled rather than rushed feel. (Why, for instance, did he not dispense with Mrs Smith and Nurse Rook - especially when he has communicated the essence of the side plot already through Anne and Lady Russell's prescient suspicions?) I also think that Burke's alterations to the script are unsuccessful. In particular, Wentworth resolves to propose before he even arrives in Bath, substantially reducing the dramatic effect of the concert scene and the letter-writing.

Adrian Shergold's direction is also misguided. He wants the movie to appear modern and immediate and so opts for hand-held cameras and straight-to-the-camera glances. Yet this is undermined by his over-lit, sterile sets and the actors' stilted line-readings. Anthony Head and Julia Davis have no idea how to read Austen's lines - and their attempts at comedy have all the subtlety of pantomime. Amanda Hale puts on a ghastly accent as Maria Musgrove, Tobias Menzies camps it up with an over-elaborate drawl, and most of the rest of the cast are largely forgettable. True, Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones show real emotional depth as Anne and Frederick, but they are rather swamped by the surrounding mediocrity, I'm afraid.

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