Anne Elliot (Amanda Root) may only be twenty-seven years old, but it sometimes seems that her life is already over — or, perhaps more accurately, that it’s never really had a chance to begin.
Eight years prior to the start of Persuasion (1995), directed by Roger Michell and based on Jane Austen’s novel of the same title, a teenage Anne fell in love with a sailor named Frederick Wentworth (Ciarán Hinds). The two would have married, but Lady Russell (Susan Fleetwood), a family friend and surrogate mother to the girl, convinced her to turn him down. “At nineteen, to involve yourself with a man who had nothing but himself to recommend him — spirit and brilliance, to be sure, but no fortune, no connections — it was entirely prudent of you to reject him,” Lady Russell assures Anne years later.
Now, still unmarried, Anne continues to reside with her father, Sir Walter Elliot (Corin Redgrave), and her older sister, Elizabeth (Phoebe Nicholls), a shallow, self-absorbed pair who take no interest in her, to the point where they almost seem oblivious to her existence at times. Things are about to change, however: Sir Walter’s extravagant spending, no longer kept in check as it was while his late wife was alive, has made it impossible for them to maintain their current lifestyle. At the urging of Lady Russell and their lawyer, Mr. Shepherd (David Collings), they reluctantly agree to move to the fashionable spa town of Bath and rent out their home, Kellynch Hall, to an Admiral Croft (John Woodvine), appalled though Sir Walter is at the thought of having a sailor in his house.
Anne has her own concerns about this arrangement, because Admiral Croft’s wife, Sophia (Fiona Shaw), happens to be Wentworth’s sister. It might be bearable for Anne if she were going off to Bath immediately, but her family insists that she stay behind for a while in order to look after her hypochondriac sister, Mary (Sophie Thompson), who lives nearby with her husband, children and in-laws. Just having Mrs. Croft around is enough to reawaken painful memories and regrets; so much the worse when Wentworth himself shows up. The Napoleonic Wars have made him a captain and a wealthy man, and a highly desirable one in the eyes of Mary’s sisters-in-law, Henrietta (Victoria Hamilton) and Louisa Musgrove (Emma Roberts). Compared to them — young, outgoing and vivacious — the meek, retiring Anne sometimes seems on the verge of fading into nothingness. A comment from Wentworth, reported to her by an oblivious Mary, is like salt in a wound: “When Henrietta asked him what he thought of you, he said you were so altered he would not have known you again.”
Wentworth may be surprised by the change in Anne since he last saw her eight years ago, yet it’s not difficult to understand. As a woman in early nineteenth century England, her options are severely limited, and because she’s an upper class woman to boot, she doesn’t even have any work to distract herself from her disappointment. (Austen, at least, had her writing to occupy her, but Anne doesn’t show any interest in following that path.) She discusses this issue with one of Wentworth’s friends, Captain Harville (Robert Glenister), speaking on behalf of women in general: “We do not forget you as soon as you forget us. We cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us. You always have business of some sort or other to take you back into the world.”
The way her family treats her doesn’t make things any easier. If Sir Walter and Elizabeth aren’t ignoring her, they’re bullying her, making decisions on her behalf or insulting her outright. Mary, meanwhile, extremely needy and as self-centered as the others, expects constant emotional and practical support from her. Even the otherwise pleasant Musgroves tend to treat Anne as a resource rather than an equal, someone who will play the piano for them or listen to their problems, never asking anything in return. Anne submits to all of it without a fight. One gets the sense that she’s long since resigned herself to this sort of existence because she’s unable to foresee anything better for herself.
And yet, as Persuasion goes along, something alters in Anne. Maybe it’s the change of scenery and the exposure to new people that does it, or maybe Wentworth’s unkind remark prompts her to take a critical view of herself and the unfulfilling life she’s led for the past eight years. Whatever the reason, she starts to grow in self-assurance, to blossom — to smile, even. It doesn’t come across as an effort to win Wentworth over again with her charms, much as she longs to reconcile with him and undo her earlier mistake. Anne is, above all, a woman of integrity, intelligent and kind, one who would rather spend time with an impoverished, sickly old school friend than fawn over wealthy relatives. In the past, she might have crumbled in the face of her snobby father’s insistence that she visit these aristocratic cousins, but she finally has the confidence to stand up to him and act as she sees fit. Moreover, when another chance to marry comes along and Lady Russell urges her to accept, she resists because she realizes that something seems off about the situation. Too much prudence may have led her into error before, but it’s not entirely a bad thing, which is also illustrated when Louisa’s impulsiveness puts her in serious danger. Anne is still Anne, and now she’s learning to be true to herself.
The style of Michell’s film is well-suited to the story and characters. There’s something refreshingly low-key, natural and unglamorous about it, with its messy-haired actors and its candlelit interiors. It’s interesting, too, how the things meant to impress within Anne’s world — particularly the Elliots’ rooms in Bath and their wealthy relatives — come across as cold or vulgar, bordering on the grotesque in the latter case. No doubt Anne sees them as the viewer does; although she was born into that milieu, she’s clearly much more comfortable with people who are warm and down to earth, including the sailors at whom Sir Walter turns up his nose. (Notably, Austen’s two youngest brothers were both in the navy, and it’s easy to see where her sympathies lay.)
Persuasion was Jane Austen’s last completed novel, published several months after her death in 1817 at age forty-one. It’s a mature work, with a protagonist old and experienced enough to look back on her past with regret, but it’s also full of hope for the future. Even someone who’s given up on life, who seemingly has nothing to look forward to in the long years stretching out before her, doesn’t have to be a lost cause.
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