We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

The 1971 Persuasion: On location · 23 February 07

Dear Harriet,

Here I am again watching film adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels. I began with the one film available that I had not thus far watched in order to make my viewing complete: the 1971 BBC Persuasion, directed by Howard Baker, screenplay Julian Mitchell (who also wrote the screenplays for the Inspector Morse episodes, film adaptations of The Good Soldier, Staying On, a play, Another Country). Ann Firbank was Anne Elliot, Bryan Marshall Captain Wentworth (he played in serious dramatic roles in 1970s TV).

By its end I was almost filled with that intense happiness I have felt during the closing scenes of just about every one of these Austen films, when they are faithful (close) or interpretative adaptations (farther off, with some or striking changes). I don’t feel this strong surge of emotion when they are transpositions (e.g., Clueless, Metropolitan). I “faced up” to this personal response a while back: I feel an intense joy in the adaptations and irrational pleasure in the analogues (just because they are analogues). I don’t feel this way about the film adaptations of Trollope (which I have begun watching and hope to begin writing about eventually) because I have never been so deeply engaged by any of his novels as I have by Austen’s. I love the joyous endings of these films. In this as in every one of the film adaptations we see our heroine (Anne Elliot aka Ann Firbank) and hero (Captain Wentworth aka Bryan Marshall) walking side-by-side at length through a long park, in this film one in Bath.

I have recognized that when a moment in the novel is really captured in the film just the way I imagined it, I am just so pleased, and when the moment is achingly or comically touching, so moved. The moment in this film: when Wentworth (Marshall) steps forth to make sure Admiral (Richard Vernon) and Mrs Crofts (Georgine Anderson) take Anne into their carriage after the long walk in the November countryside to Winthrop (Charles Hayter’s farmhouse) and back to Uppercross. In the novel this is the second moment we feel Wentworth’s intensely physical self (his body) and desire coming close to Anne and his second gesture of intense caring. (The film-makers omitted the harassing selfish Musgrove boys.) There was something in Ann Firbank’s eyes and neck, her whole posture which combined anxiety, gratitude, edgy desire that just brought tears to my eyes. I felt choked for a moment. The film did not use the close-up enough (in the 1995 Persuasion we see Wentworth (Ciaran Hinds’s) hands grasp Anne’s (Amanda Root’s) back skirt) and we see the grasp from far, but it’s riveting.

It does matter what the actress and actors look like. They need not be beautiful; but when they look like I’ve imagined them, I like the adaptation much more. Ann Firbank looks much more the way I’d always imagined Anne Elliot than Amanda Root. I imagined blonde elegance. I like more rough-looking athletic but gentlemanly male actors characteristic of the 1990s adaptation better than the matinee idol type and older men film-makers chose in the 1970s so Hinds is to me much more attractive than Marshall but Marshall was lean, sinewy, and elegant in his Regency suits; if he had been in a navy outfit (which is how I’ve imagined Captain Wentworth), he would have been close enough. As with David Rintouls in the 1979 P&P, once Marshall as Wentworth knows Anne returns his love and they begin to walk, Marshall relaxed, and became vulnerable in his face, loving in his movements, while Ann as Anne was all eagerness, receptivity, reciprocation. For me Emma Thompson is Elinor Dashwood; Elizabeth Garvey close to Elizabeth, Sylvestre Le Tousel psychologically Fanny Price to a T. Seeing Doran Goodwin as Emma taught me a vision of her that struck me as accurate, and after watching the 1972 film I like Austen’s Emma better (as Alan Rickman has forever changed my feelings for Brandon into deep attraction). The Catherine Morland (Katherine Schlesinger) and Henry Tilney (Peter Firth) of the 1987 NA were not as I envisaged Austen’s characters at all, and that contributed to my disappointment in the film.

Sometimes I have to admit the actor who allures me does not look like the character as I imagined him or her in Austen’s novel: John Carson (1972 Emma) does look like Knightley as I imagined him even if he’s not sexually alluring; Jeremy Northam (1996 Miramax Emma), attractive as he is, does not.

So what did I think of this 1971 BBC Persuasion. It’s much better than the way it’s usually mentioned (hardly ever discussed) would lead you to believe.

Baker and Mitchell understood how important is landscape and place in this novel and they filmed long sequences of it on location, and these when filmed at length, lingeringly, can make it superior to the 1995 BBC Persuasion at moments even if the 1971 production as a whole doesn’t quite hold together and is nowhere as successful as the later film. It has the capacity of the many episode BBC long films (12 episodes are given headers in the DVD version I watched, 6 for each part, and each then subdivided into chapters), and its greatness or the best moments are in the second half of the first part and the last part of the second: the countryside of Uppercross in November, Lyme, the real Lyme, cobb and all, and Bath before the most recent renovations. The long country walk (a moment from which I described above) is given all the nuances and many of the conversations and moments of the novel, and the film gave over 40 minutes to Lyme. It would be wonderful to have some of the landscape stills of this one. I did remember them as very beautiful even from my first watching (a long while ago I saw this series in a rented video cassette). Many long shots taken from a distance of English countryside. Lots of rich colored flowers caught in the landscape.

There may have been a deliberate attempt to contrast these open air refreshing moments (stirring with wind, the sound of birds, leaves, a sense of the sea not far off) with the scenes inside the houses, where at times I did feel the film-makers simply took scenes from the novel and made the actors say the lines in costume, particularly at the opening of the film. But in the second half, they were trying for claustrophobia and some quiet causic send-ups and satire at the narrow dense obtuse snobbish effette Sir Walter (Basil Digam), cold selfish Elizabeth (Valerie Gearon, who I’ve seen somewhere else), and (throughout) jealous, domineering, and wholly unsympathetic Mary (Morag Hood—by contrast Sophie Thompson in the 1995 Persuasion did make the viewer feel she had some cause for her ennui and complaints).

We are relieved when we see Anne (Firbank) walking alone as we do now and again in Bath. She is her own woman at such moments: the Admiral sees her walking down the street as he’s looking at the badly-drawn ship in a shop window in Bath; we see her arriving several times at Mrs Smith’s lodging. Ann Firbank made the film for me. She gave a brilliant performance (not reflected in the still chosen for the cover which seems chosen simply for its prettiness):

She’s given many dialogues and much space and we really see her slowly emerge as an individual person with depth and also holding herself apart from the people she must stay with and rejecting their values. By contrast Amanda Root’s plainness was exaggerated; Ann Firbank does look old and anxious and plain and stressed at the opening and gradually blooms by the second part—though to be honest she’s not haggard enough and the contrast between Anne when we first meet her and the Anne Wentworth again asks to marry him needs to be stronger. I thought Firbank also looked more self-possessed than Root at the concert in Bath, and was given more opportunity both in the scene at Milsom’s and the concert to be active in her responses to Wentworth. A small extra touch: the words given the Italian songs Anne translates reflect the state of mind of Wentworth near by and her own.

I began by saying I “almost” felt that intense joy. The film has flaws. There are some scenes that seem put in without much meaning in the thematics of the film (even if they come from the novel). More than any other of the film adaptations, it did resemble a soap opera at moments (a number of its male actos, e.g., Captain Harville and Captain Benwick, a very handsome Michael Culver and Paul Chapman, look like they could come from soap opera, look like matinee idols—as they did in the 1972 Emma). Lady Russell (Marian Spencer) is too old and sweet, much the figure of the prudent mother from soaps. Like the 1986 BBC S&S, it drops the really hard comedy, and has no bright comedy to replace it with, so we are left with melodrama with no antidote. The scenes after Louisa falls are overdone with grief and everyone is just too solemn. Probably too the “aesthetic schematics” (women’s hair, costumes, the over-decorated men) are somewhat obsolete, and no one sexy enough (as the 1972 Emma is not, nor the 1979 P&P quite); the ending wasn’t quite a intensely moving as the ending of the 1995 I rather think because this old film doesn’t have the computerized way of making a film mesmerizing and the music, but actually the last long scene was better (much longer, Sir Walter’s dismissal of Anne nowhere as abrupt and absurd, we see Wentworth not forgiving Lady Russell nor she quite warming to him) and our couple (Firbank and Marshall) did end on an at first hesitant and then long kiss. Perhaps there are not enough closeups in this 1971, not enough voice-over (it was only used in Wentworth’s letter where it must be used). The film-makers were not daring enough in their use of what movies can do in the way the more recent films do. A film can for example force us to look at two hands and nothing else as a stage cannot and the more recent films take advantage of this type of thing. Not enough music in this one either.

I have no stills. Only the picture of Ann Firbank and not her at her acting best that is on the cover of the DVD, and this thumb nail photo of Bryan Marshall:

Hardly anything has ever been written about it, yet it was the first of the long faithful film adaptations. It’s historically important.

I’ve a second book like Sue Parrill’s (JA on Film and Televison with lots of information, Louise Flavin’s JA in the Classroom, but Flavin simply didn’t bother watch the 1971 Persuasion. (Flavin dismisses the 1983 MP; has not enough sensitivity and intelligence to understand Fanny and is another pop obtuse reader who misses the depths of emotion in Austen’s Elinor so she also just skipped the 1986 S&S. She overpraises the 1940 P&P .)

Harriet, in the US we can get these older BBC adaptations. Caroline bought me for Xmas all six in DVD in a packaged set together, and now I realize what a wonderful present it is. The manufacturer took the covers of the originals set against a pink background. Now that Jim has fixed my computer so it plays DVDs and any video cassette what I can do is put in the DVD, and when I hit the mouse and I get a panel which allows me to “pause” the film (and see frames and stills), make it go forward to a “chapter” or back to a previous, and each film is given a menu of parts within which there are episodes. Thus what I had was a video cassette of the 1971 Emma and it had no divisions, so too my 1983 MP. That made them difficult to watch as I couldn’t tell where to begin and end. (Caroline got me the 1995 DVD P&P too where I have the same kind of controls.) In the US the title is The Jane Austen Collection, 6 disk set, BBC Video. The ISBN is 0-7907-7022-9.

I will finish the Flavin book, read one more recent critical book on Austen’s novels, and a few more essays on film and film adaptations, then reread all my notes, rewatch my chosen 4 (the 1972 Emma, the 1979 P&P, the 1990 Metropolitan, the 2006 P&P), decide if those are really the films I want to focus on (if not maybe watch a couple others), and then begin.

Yes it’s been a vast task, but I’ve loved it.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. From Edith Lank on Austen-l:

    "Ellen, I must quibble with you about that old BBC Emma—I thought Firbanks too inert and fragile, the exact opposite of the heroine who is bursting with grown-up health. As I remember, Mr. Elliot was great, better than the more modern ones. It’s my understanding that there were budget constraints on that production, which might explain the almost servantless restricted interior sets.

    Edith Lank"
    Elinor    Feb 26, 6:38am    #

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