Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Triple Shot of Persuasion

Having recently watched and compared all three adaptations of Jane Austen's Persuasion -- 2007 BBC TV Movie, 1995 feature film and 1971 miniseries -- I decided it would be an excellent plan to go role-by-role and pick the best performances in each. I did this a few years ago with Emma and had a lot of fun, so why not!

Although I grudgingly picked the 1995 version as my 'favorite' adaptation overall, all three were a bit disappointing and failed to deliver the truly satisfying experience that an excellent adaptation can supply. While 1995 has the overall best mix of a reasonably true and accurate plot, alongside a very dashing Captain Wentworth and a smooth flowing well-executed feel -- the others aren't far behind. All three have some significant strengths, but some significant weaknesses as well. However, exceptionally fine performances are found in all. So, I'm wondering, how will the points come out and which adaptation will come out on top if I grade the actors? Lets see!  By the way, my grades are obviously based on my own subjective enjoyment of the performances and are heavily biased toward what I feel is "true" to the characters as Austen wrote them.

Anne Elliot:

1) Sally Hawkins (2007). I love her spunky charm and deep internal life. Because the adaptation she acts in is the most distant from the book, Hawkins does not have the opportunity to really inhabit the Anne Elliot of the book as the others do. However, I think she still comes closest to the essence of what makes Anne admirable - likable, trustworthy, solid, but still engaging, and full of a rich deeper inner life -- more so than those around her have much inkling of. Austen describes Anne as having an "elegance of mind and sweetness of temper" and I think Hawkins come closest to projecting these qualities. I can almost see her thinking things to herself with a quiet amusement. In her eyes there is a spark. The viewer -- just like the characters around Anne -- can either miss it and miss out on a lot, or catch it and be rewarded.  A

2) Amanda Root (1995). Though she is clearly an excellent actress, Root, and the production she acts in, have a take on Anne that feels a bit too timid and mousy for my taste. I greatly appreciate Root's emotive skill and think that she has created an inspiring and memorable persona; I just don't think that persona makes the best Anne Elliot. Amanda Root would have played an excellent Fanny Price (Mansfield Park) had she been given that chance instead. I do find her earnestness and quietness engaging, but I want Anne to be a character of lovelier inner poise and command. Amanda Root makes Anne frumpy, though she stirs with this performance anyway.  A-

3) Ann Firbank (1971). Maybe partly because of the earlier era and partly due to Firbank's more demure look, she nails the part in one way that the others do not: she projects the elegant qualities of a once lovely woman of high class; she speaks in a very refined and quiet way and gives an appropriate aura of subtle, though diminished, grace. However, she is a bit too stayed and settled for my taste. She never quite gets a lighter and cheerful inner depth that I believe Anne Elliot possesses. The actress is about a decade older than Anne is in the book, and that may push the edge of an appropriate age. By the end of the film Anne should be appreciably more attractive and appealing -- not just physically, but charismatically, but Firbank just never quite gets there, though she does perk up a bit. Overall this is a rather dull take on the role. B+

A note on the look of Anne: Somehow none of these actresses 'look' like Anne to me. Austen describes her heroine as having "delicate features and mild dark eyes" and notes that she had been a "very pretty girl" but is now "faded and thin" and "haggard." Later on, when noticed at Lyme by Mr. Elliot, Austen tells us that Anne has "very regular, very pretty features" and is looking remarkably well due to the bloom and freshness of youth having been restored by the sea air and the trip having animated her. Yet both modern (1995/2007) Anne Elliots have a more earthy look and neither are 'haggard' in the beginning nor delicate, really. The 1971 version gives us a very elegant and classic beauty in the lead role, thin and lanky with strong features, but she never seems to attain that freshness of youth. All three versions admirably liven Anne up as the production goes on; in particular, the 1995 version does an excellent job of very subtly beautifying Anne so that by the end she is much more attractive than she was in the beginning. Unfortunately, they never really get her to a place of striking beauty. I'm not sure exactly what I have for Anne in my mind, but I know these three actresses aren't quite it.

Captain Wentworth

1) Ciaran Hinds (1995). Some people complain that Ciaran Hinds doesn't look they way they expect Wentworth to look. I suppose they are right. Oddly, while the 'look' of Anne Elliot mattered very much to me, the look of Wentworth is a non-issue. Hinds is certainly a bit too old for Amanda Root (10 years her senior, when they should have been contemporaries); but, I can forgive it. I like that this Wentworth is not gorgeous. His appeal comes from his strong and direct manner, his forceful voice and his dramatic presence. His status as a leader -- one who has been around a bit and knows what's what -- is evident. Hinds is a charismatic and sexy Wentworth who conveys the strength and vulnerability of this character. A

2) Rupert Penry-Jones (2007) is the handsomest of the Wentworths and looks the most age-appropriate (though he is actually a bit older than Bryan Marshall was in 1971). You get the full sense of what a great catch this man would have been when Penry-Jones plays him! He is also somewhat intense, and it's great that the production he is in allows him to express and convey deep desire for Anne, along with a smoldering gallant style. I really don't have too much negative to say about him other than that he falls a bit short of the mark set by Ciaran Hinds in exuding the full range of presence and strength of the character. A-


3) Bryan Marshall (1971). I hate that I am troubled by things like Ann Firbank's fluffy '70s updo or Brian Marshall's thick sideburns and helmet hair. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't. It is odd and unfortunate that the look of both our leads in the 1971 production is so heavily a function of their own time as to be distracting when other more minor characters in that production look fairly timeless. In any case, Marshall is good but it may take the modern viewer a bit of time to get used to his style, or to ever come round to finding him sexy. Aside from his appearance, he plays the least engaging or dynamic leading man of the three. However, he does project a warm and appealing Captain Wentworth overall and, by the end of the production, is quite attractive and so very in love with Anne as to be really sympathetic. B+


Sir Walter Elliot

1. Anthony Head (2007).  We are told by Jane Austen that vanity is the beginning and end of Sir Walter. He had been remarkably handsome in his youth and still a very fine man at the age of 54. Sir Walter cares very much for his station in life and for the appearance of his dignity and his fine person. For all of these reasons he is absurd, but not hilarious. Of all the Sir Walters, my favorite is Anthony Head. I would watch the 2007 version again simply to sample his performance one more time; it took time to switch gears to Anthony Head's take on the role, but once I did, I was absolutely hooked. For starters he is a physically perfect choice; he almost certainly was an extremely handsome younger man and now looks dignified and still quite attractive. Head gets the little-ness and irritability of Sir Walter just right and allows Sir Walter to lighten up considerably once in Bath and away from the pesky financial troubles that plagued him before. A+


2. Corin Redgrave (1995) gives a very fun performance here as Sir Walter. Yet, all in all, he is a bit too flamboyant, fussy and over-the-top for my taste. He also comes across as somewhat whiney and attention-seeking, which I just don't see as an attribute of the character Austen created. Redgrave's take may diverge from Austen's, but he does creates a very distinct impression and really eats up the scenery when he's on camera. He does this with his performance as well as his costumes -- which are beyond extreme. I mean, I can't help but admire all of this, but the production's take on Sir Walter is a bit too comic to get the top spot. A-

3. Basil Dignam (1971). Is a good actor; I don't know much about him, but I get the impression of a typical, strong-quality, BBC character actor. I find him a bit too old (at age 65ish) for the character, and also too average looking to really stand out as the absurdly vain and attractive Sir Walter. That said, I still like the solid, even style Dignam gives to Sir Walter, with his fussy and self-absorbed ways. There is some tough competition in this field and Dignam just can't quite stand up with the others. B


Lady Russell

What an odd bunch of Lady Russells! ... from kindly friend, to ice-queen, to total doormat, we cover all interpretations of the role.

1. Susan Fleetwood (1995). Lady Russell is an odd character. She has been the means of separating Anne from Wentworth before the film even begins. Thus it makes sense to think of her as meddling or overreaching. Still, the novel makes it clear that she did this out of love for Anne and because she believed that Anne deserved better. She stands in place of a mother and is the character that loves and appreciates her the most. She counsels the family and has a strong position of power. Because she addresses all of these aspects, Susan Fleetwood gives a fantastic performance; she makes Lady Russell warm(ish) and motherly, but still unfriendly toward Wentworth and somewhat bossy from time to time. She is a friend-like counselor, both motherly and proud. A


2. Alice Krige (2007) plays Lady Russell a bit too heavy on the cold and directing side, and light on the motherly counselor side. She seems pinched and unfriendly to me and also looks rather stressed out much of the time. Rather than coming across as powerful, she seems troubled and either ineffective or icy. B


3. Marian Spencer (1971) is my least favorite by far, mostly because I find her totally forgettable in this role. She plays Lady Russell as a milquetoast and fretful matron. She neither comes across as powerful and strong, nor particularly kind and helpful. She is bland. In fact, I can hardly remember her performance at all, and had to re-watch clips of it in order to have something to say here  :)   C



Mary Musgrove

1. Morag Hood (1971). Mary Musgrove, Sir Walter's youngest and whiniest daughter, is also an incredibly interesting character in the book. Perhaps it is just because 1971 Mary (Morag Hood) gets the most screen time and therefore the best opportunity to really explore the petty selfishness and imagined neglect of Mary, but I really like her performance the best. Hood is quite sexy, something I hadn't expected in a 1971 production or thought of as an attribute of Mary, but find actually works quite well for the role. She is not downright beautiful but is appealing enough that you can see why Charles chose to marry her. He may have started regretting it right away as it is clear that Mary is used to getting her way; but as a couple they capture an interesting and an unusual, but decently workable, relationship that I like.  Morag Hood portrays the nuances that make up Mary and ends up being a highlight of the production. A


2. Amanda Hale (2007) gives a quite nice, but odd and quirky take on Mary that I like. She portrays Mary as a bit snooty, a bit stupid, and fairly unpleasant, but harmless enough. Preoccupied with her own little needs. Hale uses a twitchy, jerky sort of walk and does a great job of demonstrating the benign but irritating style of this character. She, like her sister Elizabeth in this production, engages in a bit too much posturing; both play their roles for laughs and for attention rather than just playing them straight; this is not my preference for any Austen adaption, because I like the humor and irony to come straight out of the dialog. Still a very good Mary.  A-

3. Sophie Thompson (1995). It seems sacrilegious to have Sophie Thompson at the bottom of any acting list, yet, I just didn't care for her Mary. She is whiney red-nosed and rather low-brow. It is hard to imagine this Mary as the dignified daughter of a baron and impossible to imagine Sir Walter would have ever put up with a child such as this. Sophie Thomspon is always great at creating memorable characters and this one is no exception; she is memorable, but I'm not sure its in a good way. She takes Mary to a place I don't think Austen wrote for her (a whiney, low-class place). B-

Admiral (with Mrs.) Croft

1. Peter Wight (2007) has a gregarious warmth and style that suits this character. He seems to be about the right age and energy for the role and he comes across as a good natured man who is slightly out of his element but comfortable enough with himself that he really doesn't care. I like Admiral Croft, as played by Wight, but think of him as window dressing to his wife's more important role.  A

2. Richard Vernon (1971) Although only in his mid-40s here, Richard Vernon appears 20 years older! But he still manages the joyful, preoccupied air of a sailor on land. He is completely comfortable with his position and lot in life, and therefore expects that everything will just go along as it should. Although, physically, he is far cry from Peter Wight, both men have a similar airhead energy to their Admiral Crofts; they project the kind of man you would be happy to chat with but would probably never get to know all that well. A-
3. John Woodvine (1995) makes a jovial enough Admiral, kind toward children and pleasant to have at a dinner party. But somehow his performance doesn't suit my undertanding of the character as well as the other two. This is an odd criticism, but to me, Woodvine seems to be a bit too sharp and strong, too 'present'; I'm not sure why that seems wrong for a sea captain, but I like the more distracted, fanciful and self-absorbed take of the other two Admirals a bit better. B+


Mrs. Croft (with her husband)

1. Fiona Shaw (1995). Its funny that my least favorite Admiral Croft is teamed up with my most favorite Mrs. Croft. I love Fiona Shaw's fantastic portrayal as the latter. Shaw has the right age, the right look, the right earnestness and the right intelligence. She just gets this character. She sees Mrs. Croft as a salt-of-the earth type of woman who is unflappable and independent, yet very happy to be married to her husband. She is warm and kind and also very powerful. She is honestly the only Mrs. Croft I can even remember and, because I love this character, that is quite important! A+

2. Marion Bailey 2007 is too old for this role -- at around age 55. This is compounded by being much too old a choice to play the sister of Rupert Penry Jones' (who looks 28). She might have swung Ciaran Hinds' sister, had she been in the 1995 film (as he was, and looked, around 42). But, in any case, Bailey is not just too old but too non-descript. She plays a typical Austen matron -- and does it well enough, but, overall, her performance falls short for this interesting and pivotal role. B

3. Georgine Anderson (1971). As with Marion Bailey (2007), Georgine Anderson comes across as too old for this role. And as with Richard Vernon, her on-screen husband, she is actually much younger than she looks. She is 'only' 43 years old here (which is still probably too old), but appears 55.  In any case, the 1971 version has a reasonable but not particularly moving take on the Crofts. Anderson is pleasant enough and competent enough, but doesn't provide any special spark to really sell the role; and this is a special disappointment because Mrs. Croft is one of my favorite characters. B

Charles Musgrove

1. Rowland Davies (1971) managed to turn in the unbeatable Charles Musgrove performance over 40 years ago. The other actors should have just looked at this film and gone home. Everything about his Charles rings true. I love the scene where the group is taking their walk and Charles is miffed at his wife for having refused to accompany him down to his cousin's home. Charles is holding both arms out for Anne and Mary but keeps dropping the Mary arm to swat at things with a stick. He does this perfectly with just the right attitude of boyishness and irritability. I also think of the scene where they are all in Bath and he is speaking to his mother about his theater tickets, saying "aren't I a good boy?"  Davies gets the spoiled, but still good-natured and sensible style of Charles to a T. Love him. A+


2. Simon Russel Beale (1995) plays Charles a lot like Rowland Davies did; so I like him too. He also has a similar ruddy-face and look. But somehow his portrayal does not have quite the charm of Davies'. Maybe this has something to do with his relationship with his wife seeming a bit more unpleasant and strained than the couple in 1971 managed to pull off. In any case, he comes in second. A

3. Sam Hazeldine (2007) plays Charles capably enough, but he is a bit bewildered and wiry and maybe at tad too frustrated or angry for my taste. I see Charles as a basically good-natured and simple fellow who cares mostly for sport, basic propriety and the comforts of his happy life. He is relatively easy to please, and even when irked by his sometimes inappropriate wife, gets over it and steps up to the next pleasure. Hazeldine is a fine actor but just doesn't grab these nuances and run with them; his Charles is a bit too angry/irritable, serious, and flat. B


Elizabeth Elliot

1. Valerie Gearon (1971) reminds me very much of Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in her take on this role. She is really quite beautiful and I think Elizabeth needs to be. She is older than Anne, yet has remained fresh and elegant (like her father). That said, Elizabeth is not a kind, good person, and I like the way Gearon makes Elizabeth feel impeccable on the surface, but acidic just below it. Elizabeth, as Austen wrote her, possesses the same fierce Elliot pride as her father and like her father, her bearing should therefore be refined; Gearon's is. She should have an outward appearance of dignity and perfection and under the surface be petty and cruel. Again, Gearon delivers. A


2. Julia Davis (2007) is quite amusing, but she does here what Corin Redgrave does in 1995, and just plays the role a bit too comically; she pulls out what is absurd about Elizabeth and plays it to the hilt. That makes her performance interesting and funny, but not particularly true to the book. As with younger sister Mary in 2007, Elizabeth here is played over the top for laughs or attention. I prefer Valerie Gearon's straight take. I do appreciate the high-style costumes and hairstyles that this Elizabeth is given here, by the way. I think that really suits the extravagance and self-importance of Sir Walter's oldest daughter and mistress of the house to have excessive fashion taste. A-

3. Phoebe Nichols (1995) is quite irritable as Elizabeth. I don't see Elizabeth acting this way. She should be fairly content with her position, outwardly diginified and excessively proud -- though certainly self-absorbed and neglectful of her sister as well. She should act with decorum and at least some restraint. But this Elizabeth is pissed! and really seems to hate Anne; she is the opposite of dignified most of the time. It is just too much. Overall, the 1995 production has a take on Anne's sisters (and to some extent their father) that is too vulgar. B-


Mr. Elliot

1. Tobias Menzies (2007) is an excellent Mr. Elliot. He is glib and charming; he conveys a smooth politic style. I did not picture someone who looks like Tobias Menzies when I read the book, but I certainly do now. He gives a great impression of ambiguity. We don't quite know what to think. Just as Anne Elliot does, the viewer likes and admires him, but can't quite trust what he is up to.  He is cut from the same cloth as Mr. Wickham in Pride and Prejudice or Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility; Mr Elliot is the perfect, sexy, Regency cad, and Menzies' performance is spot on. Come to think of it, I'd love to see him play either of those roles please :)  A+

2. Samuel West (1995) is a very young and pretty Mr Elliot. Although he certainly makes Mr. Elliot an appealing man, he does not begin to grasp the nuance of the character in the way Tobias Menzies does. I keep picturing him as Frank Churchill (Emma) which is rather odd. I think he reminds me a bit of Ewan McGregor who played Frank in the Gwyneth Paltow Emma from around this time (1996). And I honestly didn't care for McGregor in that role either. They both suffer from flat and uninspired pretty boy-itis. B+


3. David Savile (1971) plays a Mr. Elliot who seems a bit more middle-aged and has a look that reminds me more of an Austen vicor. The more mature age is probably suitable, given that Austen never really suggests his age and we know he is a widower; but the somewhat dull and uninspired characterization does not. B

THE GRADES!

Lets do some summing up and get to our winners.
For starters, let me note that all three productions had first place winners. 

2007 -- Anne Elliot, Sir Walter, Admiral Croft and Mr. Elliot
1995 -- Captain Wentworth, Lady Russell, and Mrs. Croft
1971 -- Mary Musgrove, Charles Musgrove, Elizabeth Elliot
This is nicely balanced indeed!

And there were very few A+s handed out. The only actors/productions to get that top nod are:
Sir Walter Elliot (Anthony Head) 2007
Mrs. Croft (Fiona Shaw) 1995
Charles Musgrove (Rowland Davies) 1971
Mr. Elliot (Tobias Menzies) 2007
Again, pretty balanced, with each production scoring an A+, and 2007 getting 2.


But the final say will go to grades. In order to be precise, I'll assign a point value to each letter grade -- just like in school. By counting up total grade points and diving by the number of performances (ten characters here), I can determine an overall CPA (casting points average!) for each picture. This is getting exciting.

                      2007           1995          1971

A+  4.3         2                   1                1
A    4.0         2                   3                2
A-   3.7         3                   2                1
B+  3.3                              2                2
B    3.0         3                                     3
B-   2.7                              2                
C    2.0                                                1


gpa             3.67             3.57            3.36


Its an upset! Although 1996 had squeaked by as my favorite overall adaptation, 2007 wins it on actors by a nose.  All three adaptations came in very close to each other -- in the B+ to A- range -- which is especially an impressive feat for 1971, given its age and dated feel. It still managed to turn out such generally good performances so as to give the 'modern' ones a run for their money.

All three productions deserve appreciation for the things they do well. Now, I have just to wait, because in another 10 years or so, someone is bound to see the need to re-adapt Persuasion. Lets hope they hit it out of the park!

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