I know everyone has a big ‘ol boner for Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and likes to draw deep lines in the sand over which film adaptation is the best adaptation (here at Frock Flicks, we are firmly Team 1995 BBC/A&E) but as far as Austen novels go, Persuasion is my absolute favorite. And Persuasion (1995), starring Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds, is my favorite film adaptation of any Jane Austen novel ever. Directed by Roger Michell of My Cousin Rachel (2017) fame, and costume designs by Alexandra Byrne, who did Emma. (2020), Mary Queen of Scots (2018), Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), and Elizabeth (1998), this film is just pure, understated, perfection.
One of the things that speaks to me about Persuasion is the poignancy of the fact that the heroine, Anne Elliot, is older (at 27 years old, she is the oldest Austen heroine — in today’s terms, of course, she’s basically a fetus), so she has had enough time to make a few mistakes in her life and come to regret them. Anne, the middle daughter of a bankrupt baronet, is, like all Austen heroines, intelligent and capable of holding her own against the ridiculousness of the culture she was born into. But unlike the feisty Elizabeth Bennet, or the crafty Emma Woodhouse, Anne is resigned to the fact that she missed her chance with the dashing Frederick Wentworth, who had proposed marriage to her some 8 years before, just as he was to ship off in the Royal Navy. Anne’s older and wiser best friend, Lady Russell, thought the match was risky, with Wentworth being untested and of a less respectable station compared to Anne’s, and counselled her to not accept. Trusting in her friend’s wisdom, Anne broke her engagement to Wentworth, only to face the fact that there were no other suitors that suited her, and then went on to hear of nothing but Wentworth’s increasing fortune over the years. By the time Wentworth returns to England, as a companion to his close friend and brother-in-law, Admiral Croft (who is now letting Anne’s family estate), he is a career seaman with a captaincy and in possession of an undeniably respectable £20,000, making him the local catch for all the younger, prettier women in Anne’s circle.
Amanda Root plays Anne as plainly as possible. She looks believably aged, even though she is only 27, especially compared to her more glamorous older sister Elizabeth, and fashionable younger sister Mary. She is constantly overlooked or thrown under any possible bus that her family can get away with, and it is generally understood that there is some irritation that she did not accept a proposal and get on with it, already. It comes out in the course of the plot that after Wentworth’s departure, Anne had been courted by Mr. Musgrove, a local gentleman and heir to a respectable estate, but she turned him down. Musgrove then went on to marry Anne’s younger sister Mary (who I am contractually obligated to mention is played by Emma Thompson’s sister, Sophie Thompson), much to the dismay of nearly everybody. But good, sensible, solid Anne never complains about doing the right thing. She shoulders the constant burdens her ridiculous family saddles her with in a quietly stalwart way, because really, what else is there but to live and endure?
This film manages to pack in a much abriged version of the novel, and yet still somehow is able to deliver the right amount of longing and angst. And Anne is believably average, though that sparkling Austen wit shines through the cracks. Ciarán Hinds as Captain Wentworth is appropriately dashing, but also a tad world weary himself. They have both seen a lot, been though a lot, and both carry a torch for someone they think is beyond their reach. And of course there’s the Austen trope of the dashing cad, played by Samuel West, as Mr. Elliot, Anne’s cousin and male heir to the Elliot estate who shows up to sweep Anne off her feet and secure his fortune.
As Jane Austen might have said, there are many excellent things about this film to recommend itself, so you should just sit down and watch it if you’re in the mood for a Regency romance that’s a little more bittersweet than not.
Have you seen Persuasion? What did you think? Share with us in the comments.