Television: How Madge the bridesmaid helps Jane Austen

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
It was Jane Austen's Persuasion (BBC2), the billing assured us, but of course it wasn't. It was Nick Dear and Roger Michell's Persuasion, not to speak of Amanda Root's and Ciaran Hinds' Persuasion,with some excellent help from Simon Russell Beale and Sophy Thompson. Fortunately Roger Michell's film was a little more confident, and a great deal less clumsy, than its title.

He began, for example, with a concise depiction of everything Jane Austen is not - the scene of men-of-war at anchor, with Jack Tars piping the Admiral aboard and manly talk in the officer's mess, was followed by creditors besieging Sir Walter Elliot as he returned home. There was an economy of scene-setting here, a pictorial equivalent for Jane Austen's brisk exposition at the beginning of the book, but there was also something else - a sense of taking a deep breath of fresh air before going inside to a far more stifling world, a place where the most important things are least explicit.

You need it too, because Anne, on whom so much of the narrative depends, initially has the charisma of a wet sponge - particularly when she has no medium to communicate her distress but her face. Amanda Root's performance at first looked as if it might founder into bathos. There was more than one moment when the wounded, enduring set of her mouth brought Madge to mind, Dame Edna's comically put-upon companion. But the risk turned out to be a good investment. As Anne's hopes mount, by those achingly tiny increments, her beauty grows, so that the scene in which Sir Walter suddenly notices her changed appearence required no suspension of disbelief on our part. Her transformation warmed the final scenes even before Wentworth's declaration brings the sun full out.

Nick Dear's script coped with this vacancy marvellously. Persuasion is a story of unspoken words and awkward silences, not the easiest thing for a writer to get to grips with, particularly if the possibility of a narrative voice has been ruled out. But the early scenes managed to turn Anne's subjection into a dark social comedy, in particular a montage in which she receives the whining confidences of everyone in the Musgrove household. It was beautifully paced and capped with a pert invention of Dear's - Simon Russell Beale slumping down morosely and condensing all these complaints into just two words: "Oh Anne!"

Roger Michell's direction, too, was prepared to trust the acuity of the audience's emotional eyesight, a virtue paradoxically emphasised by one of his rare lapses into cinematic magnification. When Anne first sees Wentworth, a moment in which she has to reconcile huge internal shock with external equanimity, he employed one of those Hitchcock zooms, in which the perspective skews queasily as you close in on a face. This is a degraded idiom, a stock shot from horror movies, and it was as jarring here as if Captain Wentworth had stuck his head round the door and said: "Yo, babe."

The film ended with its only other serious breach of good manners. When Anne encounters Wentworth in the street and their feelings finally become clear, Austen writes of "smiles reined in and spirits dancing in private rapture".

Perhaps the long stretch of self-denial had exhausted them but the film- makers couldn't resist a cheesier form of consummation. You were given one of those slow motion lip-collisions so beloved of Hollywood romances. This was simply improper, an unnecessary addition to the infinitely more moving closure of Wentworth's glove around Anne's hand, and it showed a wilful indifference to the novel, which is absolutely not about the abandonment of social restraint.

Still, the mischief came too late to really matter, and the heart cheered even if the head didn't.