Monday, January 14, 2008

Not at all Persuading

Last night was the first in a series of Masterpiece Theatre showings of Jane Austen movies. Can I just say that is Sunday after Sunday after Sunday of happiness? Because honestly that's what it is. Emily introduced me to Jane Austen and I have to tell you I fell hard for the girl from the first word. She can be irreverent, she can be silly, she can be stupid, she can be wonderful, and she can be awful. But I love the storytelling, the search for happiness, and the longing. Oh and the love. Who doesn't want someone to say to them "You pierce my soul," and have it be true?

But, unfortunately, the first offering was unimpressive and weak. Persuasion is one of my favorite books. Anne Elliot is a shy girl who has been told her whole life sheis not good enough. She's been told by her family she's not pretty enough to be a close member of their inner circle, by her friends she's not smart enough to make her own decisions, and by her own mind which lets her believe all the people around her. She allows herself to be persuaded by a close friend that her first love and romantic interest is beneath her and to turn him down because of his prospects. But their love is strong and by the end of the book they have fought through their fears and their disappointments to find each other again. It's a lovely book.

A few years ago a very nice adaptation came out, I've seen it several times and recently broke down and bought it. I think it's one of the most honest adaptations I've seen of any book. The lead characters are not Hollywood handsome, but they are charming and like able and genuine. This, like the new series, was a BBC made for TV movie (probably following the success of Pride and Prejudice). It also seems to hold pretty close to the book. I like a movie where you know things from the book are being left out, but after a while, you can't imagine the story being told any other way.

I liked in this version especially that it shows Anne as a plain person with beauty, but she is not in the "flower of her youth" as Jane might say. But after spending some time by the ocean and doing the things that she really loves doing and being with the people she loves (in other words as she becomes her own person) she becomes attractive and almost glows. But there isn't a drastic make-up change. Her hair doesn't go from super curly to straight. Nothing more dramatic happens then she looks happy and, in a way, settled in herself. The transformation is striking all the more because of it's subtle nature.

The new Persuasion didn't have much to recommend it. The writers seemed to roughly drive over important plot points and skim the surface of the abuse of Anne by her family and friends. This Anne Elliot often looked directly into the camera with a pointed "Can you believe this is happening to me" sort of look. Or was it really a "Get that f*#king thing out of my face please." look. I don't know. It was hard to tell. Persuasion number 1 and Persuasion number 2 both seem to have problems with the Mrs. Smith question. Mrs. Smith is a poor plot devise added by Miss Austen when she needed to get information across but didn't know how to do it. Anne is pursued romantically by her handsome cousin who stands to inherit her father's baronet title. Anne's father seems to be on the verge of romantically linking himself to a young widow. If he produces a male heir, the young cousin will be SOL. Anne finds out that, to ensure his inheritance, he had decided to pursue Anne and get her to marry him. If that fails, he is also pursuing the young widow and promises to keep her as his mistress with all the financial backing he can. Talk about burning the candle at both ends. But how do we find all this out? Enter Mrs. Smith a very poor old school friend of Anne's who has met with hard times. Her husband died in the Nepolianic wars and, unfortunately, left her penniless. She is also crippled from some nameless Austin plot devise that ensures she has a nurse who is clued in to ALL the goings on in the town of Bath where the bulk of the intrigue takes place. When Anne visits Mrs. Smith, she finds everything out. Although Anne never intended on marrying the cousin, she finds the news disturbing and it ensures she will not accept the proposal even to save her family. In the old persuasion we see Mrs. Smith twice. She produces the said information at the moment it is needed. In the new Persuasion we see her once and we find out that her nurse knows all...and then we never see her again. The news about her cousin is reported to Anne her sister in-law Heather breathlessly. Why breathlessly, because they are running. Why? Anne is trying to catch her Captin and talk to him. Heather, for no reason I can discern, has just found all this out, from no source she lets on about, and has to tell Anne right away. She even runs with Anne a distance to tell her the news. So there was no reason to bring in Mrs. Smith at all...and all that important information is useless to Anne who is literally running after a different man and Heather seems to come out of nowhere.

This happened more than once in the movie. Characters came and when without much introduction and with no clear exit. Also, it committed this crime:




The longest just kiss already super close up moment I have ever seen. Sure, we all like to read about trembling lips...but watching them is a little different. Feel free to disagree. But I got board watching this. I know they've waited 8 years to kiss, but give me a break. Personally, I like this much better:



It seems more real and honest.

Here is the wonderful review by the SF Gate:

Persuasion: "Masterpiece Theatre" production. Starring Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones. Directed by Adrian Shergold. Adapted from Jane Austen's novel by Simon Burke. 9 p.m. Sunday on KQED.

Whew, give me a minute, will you? I've just watched Jane Austen's rollicking screwball comedy "Persuasion," and need to catch my breath.

There very well may be a way to jam the gentle ironies of Austen's novel into a 90-minute film, but, good grief, "Masterpiece Theatre" surely hasn't done it this time. If it weren't for the fact that viewers will at least get a CliffsNotes version of Austen, I'd wave them off altogether.

It's especially disappointing, not only because we expect "Masterpiece Theatre" to treat masterpieces better, but also because PBS has made a big deal about doing all of Austen, plus a film based on her life, in successive weeks, you'd think they'd start off with a production of better quality. Some of the films - the wonderful "Pride and Prejudice" with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, "Emma" with Kate Beckinsale and Samantha Morton - have been seen before. New adaptations of other Austen novels have been created for this series. I can't yet speak of the other 90-minute wonders in the package - "Northanger Abbey," "Mansfield Park" - but if they are as mediocre and, at times, laughably bad as "Persuasion," Ms. Austen will be whirling in her grave.

Although the basic problems of script and inappropriately madcap direction are probably inescapable, the performances don't help much. Sally Hawkins is a runny-nosed Anne Elliot, whose youthful betrothal to then-impoverished naval Capt. Wentworth (Rupert Penry-Jones) was called off by her money-grubbing father (Anthony Head). Eight years later, the Elliots are forced to rent out their mansion and move to humbler quarters in Bath, but the new tenants turn out to be the sister and brother-in-law of Wentworth, who soon reappears in Anne's life. While others go about scheming to make financially successful marriages, Anne tries to maintain her composure around Wentworth, who, for his part, all but snivels and sneers in her presence.

Hawkins is effective at times, but at too many others, she surrenders to a wide variety of vocal mannerisms and facial tics. At the end of the film, as she is about to kiss Wentworth (oh, come on, you always knew how it comes out), her mouth twitches like a bass zeroing in on a tasty side order of plankton as her face moves slowly toward its target. The shot is about the longest in the entire film, which admittedly may come as a bit of a relief after the breakneck pace of what's led up to it.

Director Adrian Shergold moves things along so quickly, it's probably hard for newcomers to Austen's story to figure out who's who and who's related to whom. But that's the least of the problems caused by this approach. More significant are the losses of nuance, character development and emotional complexity. Of course, "Persuasion" isn't a screwball comedy, but as adapted by Simon Burke and directed by Shergold, it plays like "Bringing Up Baby," without the intercostal clavicle or, you know, wit.

By the way, Sunday night's broadcast marks the debut of Gillian Anderson as the "Masterpiece Theatre" host. At least the few minutes she's on might be worth watching.

E-mail David Wiegand at dwiegand@sfchronicle.com.

Honestly, I couldn't agree more. Even the sleeping man! Ouch! Oh, but Gillian Anderson was totally worth watching and I intend on spending some lazy weekend soon watching House of Mirth.

Next week: Northanger Abbey. I haven't read this book, so it will be all new. I'm very much looking forward to it, although the 90 minutes thing bothers me as much as it did this guy. Fortunately, like the others there is an older BBC version I can check out. I'm going to my mom's this weekend, maybe I'll take it with me.

But, while I'm at it, I highly recommend Lost in Austen (which will also be a miniseries from the BBC at some point in the near future...though I don't know how because it's a choose your own adventure book, but I look forward to it!)

One book I do not recommend is the Jane Austen Book Club. I read it because the movie was coming out and Emily wanted to go see it. The funny thing was, we were both hoping that the movie improved the book. The book was so so. It's favorite trick was to get you to care about the characters and what was happening to them, and then drop the story line and run away only to return at the end with an unpleasing and boring synopsis. Blah! The most interesting character was the lesbian, but you get the feeling the author didn't know what to do with her so her story line get's stuffed into the corners of other people's stories. The worst thing is the multiple narrator voice. Everything is the "we" so the reader never really gets inside anyone's head and you never really knew who the we was. And why are all these character's thinking the same thing? It didn't work. But, seeing as the stories and characters might be interesting, Emily and I looked forward to the movie. But we forgot to go see it and have to wait until it comes out on DVD. In fact, it probably is out already and we forgot to rent it. This just shows how much we care.

No comments: