The fine art of `Persuasion'

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The Independent Culture
IN 1816 Jane Austen was 41, unmarried and dying. Her mother, who would miraculously survive chronic hypochondria to reach the age of 88, felt unable to relinquish the drawing room sofa so Jane spent the last productive months of her life lying across three chairs. With the pastoral symphonies - Pride and Prejudice, Emma - behind her she was set on completing a great final fugue. Its heroine, Anne Elliot, is the author of her own tragedy. At 19, she denied her better instincts, and therefore the marriage proposal of Frederick Wentworth, on the advice of her mentor, who said that the young naval officer had "nothing but himself to recommend him''.

For the next eight-and-a-half years Anne, who has already murdered happiness, kills time; her bloom withers, leaving the kind of spinsterly good stick the rest of the family can scratch their irritations with. Then a newly prosperous Captain Wentworth returns to the district in search of a wife. The two are worse than strangers because they can never get acquainted. If this was 1995, Anne and Fred would admit that they'd made a terrible mistake before falling into bed for a century or two. Instead, we are faced with a well-mannered impasse. Anne is picking up signals from a man she hardly dare look at. So much is not happening that it barely counts as drama, and yet out of this came the intensely dramatic Jane Austen's Persuasion (BBC2). Through sighs, stammers, wounded glances and whispered hints, a supremely intelligent piece of television cracked the book's sad secret: remorse code.

The film begins with sailors rowing back to their ship. The sea is spiffy and sparkling but we are muffled deep underwater looking up at the boat's hull. Director Roger Michell borrowed the shot from The Piano, and why not? That too, was about submerged passion. Back on board, Admiral Croft (John Woodvine) delivers the drama's first line - and its one clunker. "Gentlemen, war is over," he says, telling his officers what they have almost certainly gathered from the shortage of French cannon balls trying to snooker the poop deck. The Admiral and Mrs Croft (Fiona Shaw) rent Kellynch Hall from a flabbergasted Sir Walter Elliot (Corin Redgrave). Bad enough for Anne's profligate pater to contemplate taking a lodger, let alone one whose work will have given him "a compwexion like a macawoon".

Sir Walter's baroque vanity is one of many delightful brands of selfishness on offer; the selfish gene flourishes with equal vigour in his daughters. There is the all-round ghastliness of Elizabeth (Phoebe Nicholls ) and the specialist hypochondria of Mary (Sophie Thompson) who punctuates her laments with Pekinese sniffs and, when she is not too busy stuffing her face with pork pies, lies at death's door.

Persuasion is not like any costume drama you've ever seen, although it's true that dramatic things keep happening to the costumes. They are allowed to get dirty for a start - muddy hems, uniforms with a salt crust. And there's camerawork to match. Out go the decorously held long shots, the close-ups as flattering as a formal portrait; in come the haggard stare in a looking glass, the wavering Steadicam on the back of a pony and trap. Michell is alive to the novelist's sense of landscape - when the action shifts from an inland village to Lyme Regis and, from there to the splendid rigours of Bath, you feel the characters' spirits expand and contract with their surroundings. I never thought poor Lyme would recover from The French Lieutenant's Woman; any drama that went there was doomed to end up as corn on the Cobb. But here was Louisa Musgrove crashing to the ground with other emotions falling into place around her; here was Anne learning to breathe again, and Wentworth feeling the fresh air of her intelligence. Even her complexion improves - no smears of rouge, just the odd brush with love.

The challenge for any actor is to convey the inner life. In Persuasion, Amanda Root has to manage something even harder; the inner death. Adaptor Nick Dear took the bold decision not to convert Anne's silent reflections into voiceover, let alone exterior speech. So half the time Root's face is the only clue we have - but what a face. Sadness hangs about it like a smoke ring and her eyes are pools where merriment has drowned. When Lady Russell gives her a book of poetry and says, apparently without irony, "I care little for these Romantics, do you?" Anne nods to reassure her old friend that her taste is not at fault but the camera stays with her and we are rewarded with a flicker of dissent. When she first tries to say Wentworth's name, it comes out as a hoarse whisper, rusty with lack of use. Having believed she was beyond pain, Anne now finds herself suffering a thousand fresh cuts as oblivious relatives invite her to speculate on which of the Musgrove girls Captain Wentworth (Ciaran Hinds) will wed. Root takes this torture with such mild forbearance that you want to punch your way through the screen and throttle her tormentors. When Anne is told that she is so terribly altered that Captain Wentworth barely recognises her, Michell cuts to her sitting quite rigid in her bedroom inspecting her face in a mirror. It's not self pity we see but tough self-scrutiny as if to check that time has indeed done its worst.

Put like that, Persuasion sounds about as much fun as Samuel Beckett at the dentist. But even in the glummest moments, Michell has his wits about him. Anne may have forsaken the pleasures of dancing; not so the camera, which makes the best kind of partner, quick and intuitive. It rushes toward her when she first sees Wentworth again - eager to capture her reaction, but also riding the wave of shock between them. As soon as the Captain has gone, Michell changes the depth of field around Anne so that the very air in the room appears to stretch and leave her stranded. And when she spots him, later on, through a coffee shop window in Bath, the buzz of customers is suddenly turned right down as if one man can blank out all others. Let's face it, this is completely surprising; if I was in a coffee shop and Ciaran Hinds walked by I would happily stone every other woman in the joint with Bath buns for the first touch of his epaulettes. Wentworth's every entrance is a thrill and not just because he isn't played by Sean Bean. In case you were wondering where you've seen those eyes before, black with fury and desire, think of Humphrey Bogart trying to get Lauren Bacall out of his system, and failing miserably; Jane Austen's To Have and Have Not.

Janeites will be delighted with Dear's adaptation; it gives them so much to gripe about! To pack even this trimmest of novels into a Screen Two has involved some serious pruning. Mrs Clay's designs on Sir Walter have been lost almost entirely and Mr Elliott (Samuel West) looms less large than he ought. But Dear has done the best you can do with a great novel; he shows humility where possible and daring where necessary. For the most part he wisely lets Austen do the talking. There is a hands-on approach to imagery; the fingers Anne twirls round a chair to steady her distress when she first sees Wentworth, the helping hand he extends to place her in the Crofts' carriage; and last but most, the small hand folded in the large white officer's glove. A broader treatment spread over two or three episodes would have diluted the concentrated elegiac mood. Persuasion is halfway between a comedy and a nocturne, but it's the dark notes that hum around your head for years afterwards even though the plot ends on a major chord.

Which brings us to That Kiss. It was put in at the request of the American distributor but Michell liked it so much he kept it in the British version. It didn't bother me. In fact I had reached the point where I would have paid the man to kiss her; we had been waiting 90 minutes. Anne had been hanging on for eight years. When it finally happened she closed her eyes as though she were taking a photograph of it in her memory. I felt the same way about the whole production. If I have devoted the whole column to one programme, something I have never done before, it is only because Roger Michell has done something with television that I have never seen before. Classic drama is like Sir Walter Elliot; it puts the greatest store by appearance and a fancy hairdo. Persuasion, on the other hand, had nothing but itself to recommend it. Jane Austen would have approved.