Persuasion (United Kingdom, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Jane Austen, considered by many literary critics to be among the first of the "modern" writers, is perhaps best known for creating believable, strong-willed, independent female characters in an era when women in books were often little more than window dressing or plot devices. Although remembered primarily for her alliterative titles, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, Austen authored six major novels, including that upon which this film is based, Persuasion.

Those horrified by Roland Joffe's looser-than-loose "interpretation" of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter will be overjoyed to learn that cinematic faithfulness to classic novels is not a dead art. Not only does Persuasion remain true to Austen's story, but Nick Dear's script, as brought to the screen by director Roger Michell, conveys a sense of atmosphere and "feeling" that a less-adept adaptation might lose.

Persuasion opens in early 19th century England (1814, to be precise), in the wake of war with France. Across the Channel, Napoleon has abdicated and been confined to Elba, and British servicemen are returning home. Among them is Captain Frederick Wentworth (Ciaran Hinds), a navy officer who has been away for more than eight years since his marriage proposal to then-19-year old Anne Elliot (Amanda Root) was refused. Now, almost a decade later, Anne lives in a state of constant regret, attempting to fill an empty life through her selfless devotion to family and friends. However, although she remains without either husband or suitors, circumstances have decreed that she has not seen the last of the one true love of her life.

Even though the subject material of the film might sound like the stuff of a Harlequin romance, Persuasion has far greater depth than any dime store soap opera. The movie offers not only keen insights on the lasting, and agonizing, effects of love, but explores the theme of consequences. While the hand of fate can be seen working throughout, the characters' circumstances are ultimately the result of their own choices and actions. Anne is responsible for her unhappiness, and, when an opportunity arises to redress her past error, she must seize it or lose Frederick forever. The barrier to overcome is the deep emotional scarring created by her decision of eight years ago.

To a lesser extent, Persuasion also works as a social commentary. The film takes aim at the pre-Victorian society in which it is set -- a social structure that encouraged the empty words of sycophants over true expressions of friendship. Many of the characters are cloaked in artifice, and it's only as their real motives are uncovered that we learn of their duplicity and superciliousness. Michell uses some of this shallowness to comic effect through the fatuous presentation of characters like Anne's father (Corin Redgrave) and sister Elizabeth (Phoebe Nichols). It's men and women like this that draw our sympathy towards those who are honest and straightforward, like Anne and Frederick.

The fine cast is populated by members of England's Royal Shakespeare Company. Amanda Root, who has the main role, is a revelation with her natural manner of conveying complex emotions. Root's most obvious assets are her expressive eyes, which display everything from longing and pain to surprise and joy. The actress brings a captivating mix of dignity, charm, and willfulness to Anne. Her co-star, Ciaran Hinds, illustrates Frederick's deeply-buried torment, both when it's repressed and when it comes bubbling to the surface. These two actors command our attention, especially when they share a scene. Also, a few somewhat-familiar faces, like Sophie Thompson, Corin Redgrave, and John Woodvine, have supporting parts.

Occasionally in the past, I have compared British-produced period pieces to episodes of PBS's Masterpiece Theater. In this case, it's more than a comparison, since Persuasion is due to be shown on that program in 1996. Like nearly all Masterpiece presentations, this one boasts impeccable production values. Its faithfulness to the source material results in a few slow spots, but Persuasion is nevertheless fine entertainment. And, at a time when most love stories involve copious displays of skin, it's a rare pleasure to see so much emotion brought to the screen by a single kiss.

Persuasion (United Kingdom, 1995)

Run Time: 1:44
U.S. Release Date: 1995-09-27
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1