sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2018-08-25 03:37 am
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We none of us want to be in calm waters all our lives

I remembered liking Roger Michell's Persuasion (1995). It was my second experience of Austen on film; it was an intervention staged by a friend who had been going to show me Tous les matins du monde (1991) until it came up somehow that I had never seen Ciarán Hinds. It became my immediate benchmark for costume design in historical movies and leads with unusual faces recognized as beautiful. Eight years later, I'd say it more than holds up on these fronts. Plus I recognize more than two members of the cast these days, which is fun.

The premise is a classically Austenian intersection of hearts and economics; the title has a satirical, cautionary twist. Eight years ago, Anne Elliot (Amanda Root) was persuaded against her own judgment to reject a man she loved desperately because he "had nothing to recommend him but himself . . . no fortune, no connections," but now with Napoleon exiled to Elba and the wars seemingly at an end, that same Captain Frederick Wentworth (Ciarán Hinds) is returning to England an eminently eligible bachelor, a naval hero to the tune of £20,000 and so apparently ready to marry that his own sister jokes that "anybody between fifteen and thirty may have him for the asking—a little beauty, a few smiles, a few compliments of the Navy, and he's a lost man." In the meantime, the class-conscious and profligate Sir Walter Elliot (Corin Redgrave, a narcissistic vision in cornflower brocade) has run his family's own fortunes so badly into the ground that he is obliged to repair with his unmarried daughters to chic but less expansive lodgings in Bath and grudgingly let his estate to Admiral Croft (John Woodvine), the Trafalgar veteran whose personal and professional connections are the first step in the chain reaction of reuniting the once-lovers by inevitable social inconvenience, first in the Somerset countryside, then on the shingle of Lyme Regis, and finally in the shops and salons of Bath. We know from the start that Anne's feelings have not altered; she can barely articulate the beloved name without her throat going dry, her face pinched even paler than its usual anonymity. We know nothing about Wentworth except that he is tall, dark, not exactly handsome, and that he has an allergy to high society that would bode sympathetically for the equally private Anne if she could sense in the slightest that he does not despise her for breaking his heart—or worse, feel nothing about her one way or the other, having gotten over his disappointment and moved dashingly on. As she reminds a male friend, "You always have business to take you back into the world." And yet when Anne is footsore and stumbling from slogging all day on damp hillsides in the wake of her married younger sister and an excitable skein of in-laws, the taciturn captain is the first to notice; he hands her up to the Admiral's chaise to ride home instead of tiring herself further and suddenly all the screen is his gloved hand in the moss-colored folds of her cloak at the small of her back, all her awareness that one point of contact, so muffled, so fleeting, and so vital. The film will be intimately attentive to every such moment between them, all the more so because neither of them is given to grand gestures. The clues, if they exist, are minute and double-speaking, constrained by present diffidence as much as painful past. In this carefully monitored environment, even a look can be as galvanic as a shock. A kiss? If the film stock doesn't go up in flames, sure.

A romance that slow and subtly burning has to have actors who can carry every shade of their characters from wounded indifference and resignation to renewed hope and vulnerability and the measure by which Root and Hinds succeed may be my difficulty in thinking of anyone else in either part. The audience can yell "JUST KISS!" as loudly as they want, but the leap of confessing love takes courage, especially love that has been rebuffed or given up for lost. A man of panache and decision at sea who stands around stiffly at parties ashore, Wentworth is so much not his own idea of a romantic hero that he fails to appreciate how he's damn near everyone else's, which makes him a disaster at advancing his own heart's interests—even the false impression of competition can make him quit the field under the misapprehension that he's being tactful rather than an idiot. Anne's reasons for hesitation are thornier, rooted in those eight mute years of watching the sphere of her life shrink to the grounds of Kellynch Hall and the demands of her relations. By an unkind catch-22 of intelligence, she has become at once the family's redundant spinster and its only sensible member, which makes her invisible until needed and unappreciated even when useful. Her father is a red-frizzed dandy who unironically admires his reflection in the table silver while twitting about the disappointing frightfulness of the women one meets in Bath; her sisters are studies in passive aggression, Mary (Sophie Thompson) an expedient hypochondriac given to moaning about her health while motoring her way through breakfast, Elizabeth (Phoebe Nicholls) a fashion plate in everything but expression who appears to subsist, sylphlike, on a diet of sorbet and snubs. Altogether they leave the impression of people who can judge a stranger's social standing down to the micrometer but would fail to find their way out of a paper bag without a full complement of servants to hold lanterns and bear their condescension in silence, and the decisive assurance of their glamorous neighbor Lady Russell (Susan Fleetwood) offers Anne little respite when it steered her so wrong before. She has wasted in their company, so thin and vague that the Empire silhouette settles on her like sheets over the furniture of a shut-up house, her small, self-contained face washed out until its most distinguishing features are huge dark eyes under brows like broken commas. She looks like a lemur—the Roman kind, a starved and dispossessed ghost. It is both a reward and a relief to watch her blossom under the friendship of the Admiral and his wife Sophia (the wonderful Fiona Shaw), whose childless, unbreakable, vividly loving marriage models an ideal of shared life beyond social obligation, as well as the goodwill of her in-laws the Musgroves, who are collectively a little high-maintenance—one twingingly funny scene tracks the round-robin of every family member kvetching to Anne in turn—but sincere in their affection, which extends to mourning that their Charles (Simon Russell Beale) married Mary instead of Anne. Once out of the suffocating isolation of Kellynch Hall, we see that she makes friends warmly and readily, debating the constancy of women and men with the married Captain Harville (Robert Glenister) and matching the melancholic Captain Benwick (Richard McCabe)'s knowledge of Byron and Scott. She begins to dress to her own tastes, even her own advantage. When she studies her face in the mirror at night, she can see the gains of the day, not just pallor. And because Jane Austen in her last novel and Nick Dear in his first screenplay knew that only in Hollywood cliché does a woman take off her glasses and turn into Britain's next top model, Anne never looks a great beauty by the standards of her time or ours, but she becomes beautiful to us with her shy curl of a smile and her steady, deepening eyes, her face no longer so wan and drawn but sure and alive. It is Wentworth's good fortune to benefit from her newfound strength. He is not the reason she grows into it.

Persuasion was originally developed for the BBC as a co-production with WGBH Boston and Millesime and I don't believe it got even an Oscar nomination out of its U.S. theatrical release, but it did win a bunch of BAFTAs, including a well-deserved pair to John Daly for photography and lighting and Alexandra Byrne for costume design. When I say that this movie is my benchmark for historical costuming, I mean that the clothes look like clothes people live and work and travel in, not like showcases for actors in the modern eye, and they are true to the fashions of the time whether anyone looks good in them or not. (Spoiler: quite a lot of people look awful in Empire waists. I worry about the arsenic in some of those brilliantly flashy greens. Puce is less objectionable in person than I had been led to expect and the Musgrove girls are high-spirited in their poppy-bright cloaks, but Elizabeth can at one point be seen sporting a short jacket and tall hat in a color I believe to be evening primrose; it is vibratingly yellow and no friend to her complexion. I admire one of Sir Walter's coats and otherwise wish to hide when I see any of his waistcoats coming.) People's faces are wind-roughened, heat-flushed or cold-pinked; no one's hair is ever perfectly arranged. Even more incredibly, it's not '90's hair, which means that some characters are flattered by Psyche knots and some should hope their ringlets wilt as quickly as possible in the candle-heat of the salon. I am not as good at judging either makeup or lighting, but both certainly look minimal to natural to me. Days are luminous with rain; dinners are dramatically low-lit. Lyme is full of buffeting sea-breeze and haze and strong soaking sun. A rainy day in Bath makes the Elliots' house at Camden Place look like a chilly museum of black-and-gold neoclassical furnishings. The film is full of beautiful shots, but they are never candy-box—if anything, Persuasion is suspicious of the standard forms of beauty. I had forgotten until he appeared on the harbor wall at Lyme that Samuel West had ever been as blond and leopardine as he is as a black-sheep Elliot cousin discovered diplomatically making up to Sir Walter in Bath, but his very prettiness serves as warning coloration for Anne, of a piece with his ardent but opaque flirtations. By contrast, none of the Navy men—as Sir Walter is so fond of noting—are pin-ups, but they have substance, however stubbly or contrary; they are themselves and not whatever their ambitions oblige them to appear at any moment. Anne's old school friend Mrs. Smith (Helen Schlesinger) is a widowed invalid of meager means, but she and her sharp-eared nurse (Jane Wood) are infinitely more fun to spend an afternoon with than the exalted waxwork of Lady Dalrymple (Darlene Johnson), the viscountess to whom the Elliots are presented with smothering formality. The script's allegiances are as unpretentious as its protagonists and just as clear. You can see the servants in this production; the work of living in this world. Happy endings are not bestowed by the gods of heritage pictures. Anne has to speak out to get hers, and Wentworth has to have learned how to hear.

I watched this movie with my mother who does not think she saw it when it came out and loved it as much as I did; she spoke to me afterward about the parallels and shadows with Austen's own life, about which I still know relatively little except her age when she died and the only good thing about that is Jo Walton's poem. I would like this story even if it were invented from whole cloth. Romance is not my native genre and I don't care, because I like watching people grow into themselves; I like that the film could close just fine with two people walking quietly down a street when the whirl of a passing circus has gone and instead it goes one better and gives its heroes—and us—the sea. I like what they see in each other, which we never have to take on faith. We see it for ourselves, shining between their smiles. This second chance brought to you by my constant backers at Patreon.
nineweaving: (Default)

[personal profile] nineweaving 2018-08-25 08:08 am (UTC)(link)
One of my very favorite comfort films, perfectly evoked. I am not keen on romance myself, but I love lived-in worlds and lived-in faces, sailors' and servants'. This the least chocolate-boxy of all Austen films, muddy hems and all. Don't you love Lady Russell's homage-to-Marmion outfit?

movingfinger: (Default)

[personal profile] movingfinger 2018-08-28 12:37 am (UTC)(link)
I'm watching the DVD, and I just loooove the pans over the servants' and bystanders' faces, from time to time.

And the shabbinesses and practicalities, yes, and the humidity-frizzed hair, and the glorious mud, and the toys... And the food's very good too. I can hardly refrain from smacking Lady Russell, the serpent.

My only objection in the casting is that Mary Musgrove looks much younger than she ought; she is the youngest of the Elliott sisters, but she has also had children, which would have worn her down a bit more than is shown.
thisbluespirit: (Northanger reading)

[personal profile] thisbluespirit 2018-08-25 09:00 am (UTC)(link)
Plus I recognize more than two members of the cast these days, which is fun.

Including, I'm sure, a very brief appearance at the start? ;-) (I'm also amused on the same front, because the last time I watched this was before I started on my wider old telly odyssy and I hadn't registered that Corin Redgrave was also in this.)

It is lovely in so many ways, and I appreciate your detailing of them here. <3 It's quite weird to think it got released as a film elsewhere, although you can see why. (It was just on the BBC here; I had no idea until I was pointing out to someone online that technically this one was a TV adaptation that it had actually had a commercial release in some other countries.)

first in the Somerset countryside, then on the shingle of Lyme Regis

Genuine Somerset countryside, too. It has its own particular hazy light that I know very well from my childhood.

are studies in passive aggression, Mary (Sophia Thompson) an expedient hypochondriac

A fair typo, as the Admiral says everyone should be Sophia, I suppose! ;-p

his first screenplay knew that only in Hollywood cliché does a woman take off her glasses and turn into Britain's next top model, Anne never looks a great beauty by the standards of her time or ours,

No, indeed. What happens is that you walk past people you know in the street and then straight into a lamp-post, which you then apologise to.

Romance is not my native genre and I don't care, because I like watching people grow into themselves;

The latter of which is a very good description of Austen generally, really. *nods* (I confess I like a lot of different Austen adaptations in different ways, but the popular idea of Austen around as somehow romantic and pretty and all that is really very misleading.)

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[personal profile] thawrecka 2018-08-25 09:36 am (UTC)(link)
I do rather like this film, and it is an adaptation of my favourite of Austen's novels so it had to work hard to impress me. I do love that lived-in look to the whole thing. Hinds and Root are perfectly cast, indeed, and Fiona Shaw is radiant in her part.
cmcmck: (Default)

[personal profile] cmcmck 2018-08-25 10:53 am (UTC)(link)
'Calm waters all our lives'?

I should have been so lucky! :o)
moon_custafer: (eyes)

[personal profile] moon_custafer 2018-08-25 11:24 am (UTC)(link)
Even more incredibly, it's not '90's hair

I first discovered Frock Flicks through their post about The Great Bobby Pin Shortage of the 1990s-2010s:
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[personal profile] landofnowhere 2018-08-25 01:27 pm (UTC)(link)
I'd seen the blog before, but not that post -- it's pretty great!
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[personal profile] sartorias 2018-08-25 02:22 pm (UTC)(link)
I love this film for the five o'clock shadow on the men's faces at dinner, in the low candle light, the grubby hems, the coming-down hair, and for how the screenwriter permitted Austen's sharply insightful ironies into the script.
lillibet: (Default)

[personal profile] lillibet 2018-08-25 02:23 pm (UTC)(link)
I'm another who loved that film--I keep trying to figure out how to adapt it effectively for the stage, but all the out-of-doors action and changing scenes continue to stump me. Lady Croft is probably my favorite character in all of Austen.
selenak: (Black Sails by Violateraindrop)

[personal profile] selenak 2018-08-25 02:45 pm (UTC)(link)
I adore this film, and you've described it beautifully. A bit of trivia that might amuse you as it does me: the shot of the ship at the end was taken from The Bounty (1984), the one with Anthony Hopkins as Bligh, and duly credited. Which is understandable in that the era fits and they didn't have to spend money on building something that would be used so very briefly, but it does cast an ominous shadow on Captain Wentworth's future career....
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[personal profile] asakiyume 2018-08-25 03:06 pm (UTC)(link)
I haven't seen this--I will have to!
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[personal profile] selkie 2018-08-25 08:00 pm (UTC)(link)
I only ever wrote that puce doesn't go with Pomona green. Hmf.

And you have to be precisely the right coloring for evening-primrose, and nobody I know in real life ever actually is. It's, uh. It can't lie about its intentions.

Thank you for picking up all the period detail that makes this film Super to Die for If You Are A Selkie Who Watches No Films, too. It's got all the historical umph of Barry Lyndon and none of the auteurishness.

(This makes me want to set you loose on the Wasikowska Jane Eyre, simultaneously the best, best, best and the AUGH WHAT WORST of I think seven or eight Eyre adaptations.)
nineweaving: (Default)

[personal profile] nineweaving 2018-08-25 09:48 pm (UTC)(link)
Mia Wasikowska's Jane Eyre is the only one I've seen who is believably fey. You can see why Mr. Rochester keeps calling her uncanny. Also: points for creating the watercolors. They're my favorite thing in the book.


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[personal profile] gwynnega 2018-08-25 08:51 pm (UTC)(link)
Persuasion is my favorite Austen. I don't think I've seen this version of it, and I clearly must.

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lemon_badgeress: basket of lemons, with one cut lemon being decorative (Default)

[personal profile] lemon_badgeress 2018-08-25 09:41 pm (UTC)(link)
I would really like to know what the POINT of netflix is, because absolutely nothing anyone ever makes me want to watch is ever available.
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[personal profile] movingfinger 2018-08-25 10:07 pm (UTC)(link)
I agree. A couple times a week, I winnow through Netflix, Amazon (truly, truly useless these days for media streaming), Hulu, and Kanopy looking for a specific thing (this movie is a good case in point: it is apparently available nowhere), and then I put in a reserve on the DVD at the public library.

(YouTube worked sometimes for a while, and now it doesn't.)

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rosefox: Green books on library shelves. (Default)

[personal profile] rosefox 2018-08-25 11:53 pm (UTC)(link)
A while ago I watched my way through a bunch of Austen adaptations, and this one is my hands-down favorite. When I write Persuasion fanfic, as I do now and then, it's this Persuasion I write it of.

They shot it in sequence so we could watch Anne blooming in close to realtime, no artifice needed but Root's tremendous talent. I can't visualize either of them with any other face now.
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[personal profile] larryhammer 2018-08-27 08:39 pm (UTC)(link)
My lasting impression of this, which I saw in theaters, was the darkness of five-o'clock shadows on faces in evening candlelight, presented with the exactness of actors who had shaved with razors the number of hours earlier as the characters would have. I loved loved loved this adaptation of my favorite Austen novel, and should rewatch it more.
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[personal profile] drinkingcocoa 2018-08-28 04:19 am (UTC)(link)
This is an unusually beautiful review from you! "Brows like broken commas"!

Is this the Austen adaptation in which one of the characters loses her shit and starts screaming, "She is a viscountess! A VISCOUNTESS!"? I think it is; it is the same actress who played Hugh Grant's wife in Maurice, I think. I only saw Persuasion once, but 23 years later, I still laugh remembering that line delivery.
ranalore: (elizabeth sea)

[personal profile] ranalore 2018-08-28 09:23 pm (UTC)(link)
Oh, I love this movie. I saw it in the midst of several other Austen adaptations, and it caught me because Austen is witty, yes, and quite funny, but these are not the only things she is and they are not things that need to be leaned into quite as much as most of adaptations seem inclined to lean into them in order for audiences to pick up on them. This movie takes a much more understated and balanced approach, and I liked that care was taken to make the production look and feel as lived in as the narrative is. Of course, I also liked it for shallow reasons, because Ciarán Hinds is so my kind of gorgeous and the happy ending is the sea.
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[personal profile] quatorze 2018-08-29 07:56 am (UTC)(link)
Oh, something wonderful I need to rewatch when I manage to find the time! I've seen it twice, I think, but it's been ages since the last time...
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[personal profile] brigdh 2018-09-10 03:53 am (UTC)(link)
What a lovely, descriptive post. I haven't seen the movie – I need to! – but this is as wonderfully evocative as the book anyway: The film will be intimately attentive to every such moment between them, all the more so because neither of them is given to grand gestures. The clues, if they exist, are minute and double-speaking, constrained by present diffidence as much as painful past. In this carefully monitored environment, even a look can be as galvanic as a shock. So exactly that!

Have you seen HBO's show Rome? That was my own introduction to Ciarán Hinds, and he makes a wonderful Julius Caesar.

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