I love Austen’s novels, as does my wife, and we have nearly every dramatized version of every Austen novel, so we often have discussions of which version is best. The answer often boils down to, “This version is best for a lazy Sunday, but this one is best for a Friday night.” That sort of thing.
But I have decided that there is one Best Austen Dramatization, and it is the BBC’s 2007 version of “Persuasion.”
Full disclosure: Persuasion is my favorite of the Austen novels, but I do believe I was sufficiently objective in my decision.
BBC remade “Persuasion” in 2007 and followed it with a remake of “Sense and Sensibility” in 2008. Both of these movies are by far the best versions of their titles, though neither has received the sort of accolade that earlier versions were given.
In “Persuasion” especially, the attention to period detail is exacting, and the use of locations exquisite. Costuming, sets, art design, lighting, cinematography, all achieve a level of excellence that is rarely seen but which provides so much depth to the story. The soundtrack is simple, clean, understated, and builds the mood on the screen rather than setting it.
The screenplay is thoroughly faithful, keeping all the critical lines from the novel while compacting the rest into a seamless whole. While I do miss some of the scenes cut from the action, I realize that adaptation is a necessary evil in moving from book to screen, and of course, all of the emotions and information from those dropped scenes is retained.
Sally Hawkins (as Anne Eliot) and Rupert Penry-Jones (as Captain Wentworth) are superb, and the supporting cast, including Alice Krige and Anthony Head, avoid the caricatures of previous versions.
But where this movie shines is in its direction. The movie begins with Anne running about Kellynch Hall and ends with her running about the streets of Bath. The shots show us how Anne is repeatedly forgotten, left behind, ignored, as the invisible but reliably capable daughter of a self-absorbed baronet, and the direction takes the time to convey the complex emotions without words.
Breaking the fourth wall is a rarely used technique in drama, but it is done so well here that it is worth specific mention. Almost from the very start, Anne’s character breaks the fourth wall, looking directly at us, bringing us into her story. We become her diary. We are her intimate confidant. She glances at us knowingly, sadly, saying “What can I do?” As the story progresses, her glances our way are delayed, increasing our anticipation, building our bond with her, until finally she does look up and we connect with her again.
And, of course, this “Persuasion” has one of the best on-screen kisses. Ever.
The Best. Defined.