Persuasion Characters Over 36 Years

I have now seen Persuasion (1971), Persuasion (1995), and Persuasion (2007). Here are my comparisons of how the characters in these versions are portrayed:

1971 Anne and Captain W.
I think Persuasion (1971) is unfairly criticized. Yes, it is stilted and mannered. Yes, it painstakingly keeps to the plot (although the camera work isn't totally unimaginative).

But Ann Firbank as Anne is perfect. Anne is supposed to be a quiet but not timid person. She is supposed to be intelligent with an astute understanding of the people around her. She has good sense, good taste and, when called upon to do so, speaks her mind. She is the perfect companion for the incredibly straight-forward but somewhat more impetuous Captain Wentworth.

Ann Firbank presents this persona perfectly. She has a nice alto voice, an elegant bearing, and the ability to speak to the point without being aggressive. She also, more importantly, has the ability to hold her peace without looking put upon. Yes, her family ignores and slights her, but Anne has confidence in herself. In the book, many people compare Anne to her mother, a self-possessed and elegant woman.

The lovely Amanda Root
The book also makes numerous references to Anne's superiority. One is not supposed to suggest such things in this day and age but "superiority" (re: Jane Austen) means that Anne is not only more educated than, say, Louisa Musgrove but that she has a better mind. It is not a matter of SAT scores but a matter of what Jane Austen sometimes calls "understanding." We would call it insight although that implies Myers-Briggs intuition silliness. "Discernment" might be the best word--a person who can distinguish what is worthwhile from what isn't; a person who is not taken in by flashiness or gaudiness but doesn't automatically dismiss them either.

Ann Firbank does this perfectly. I quite like Amanda Root (1995), who manages to retain her dignity despite her portrayal of Anne as incredibly shy and retiring. I'm afraid I didn't care for Sally Hawkins' (2007) portrayal at all.

Captain Wentworth

Rubert Penry-Jones as
Captain W.

I couldn't warm to Bryan Marshall (1971). He doesn't have the charisma of either Ciaran Hinds (1995) or Rupert Penry-Jones (2007). I think Captain Wentworth is a difficult character to cast. Unlike Darcy, who is given specific actions to indicate definite characteristics, Captain Wentworth's character is defined mostly in his reactions to Anne. His reactions are realistic. I am not an advocate of the idea that a writer can only write what she knows (oh, Jane Austen must have had similar experiences as those portrayed in her books), but Jane Austen did have brothers, and her depiction of Wentworth's anger towards Anne (an anger that is neither excessively hostile nor excessively sappy) is about as accurate a depiction of thwarted male pride as one is apt to find in classic literature.

But how to portray him? Rupert Penry-Jones captures the strong feelings Wentworth has for Anne. Ciaran Hinds captures the authoritative bearing of a leader. Bryan Marshall is, well, rather blank (he does have a sense of humor).

Any suggestions for the perfect Captain Wentworth? Is there an actor out there who can pull it off?


I consider the 1995 Musgroves the best version of the Musgroves. They are happy, buoyant, funny, kind, not exactly intellectual but full of activity. Mary (1995) is also right on the money. She does the poor-me-all-I-can-talk-about-are-my-ailments (despite actual fine health) act very well. She and Charles are also a more believable couple than in the other versions. You can believe that when Mary isn't swooning about trying to attract attention, she and Charles actually get on fairly well. They share an interest in gossip and have similar viewpoints.

The awesome 1995 Crofts.
The Crofts

I adore the 1995 Crofts. They are down-to-earth and friendly and yet, like Anne, superior in their understanding of the world. One of my favorite scenes from 1995 is Mrs. Croft's speech at the dinner table where she explains how the only time she "imagined herself ill" was when she was separated from her husband; while she speaks, her husband, listening attentively in the background, smiles to himself. It helps that Mrs. Croft is played by the excellent Fiona Shaw and Admiral Croft by the wonderful John Woodvine.

Sir Walter Elliot and Elizabeth Elliot

I love Anthony Head (Sir Walter, 2007), but I think he plays this particular part too mean. Sir Walter is a seriously vain man who doesn't realize how ridiculous he is. He isn't angry, storming guy; he is vacillating, self-involved guy. We, the audience, should find him amusing (even if he doesn't find himself amusing). Basil Dingman (1971) is actually quite good and very funny. Corin Redgrave (1995) is so good, he makes you wince. (In fact,  Anne's 1995 family is almost too horribly self-involved. You start wondering why they don't just get eaten by sharks or show up in a CSI episode dead. We, the readers and audience, need to believe that Anne can care for these people. If they have no redeeming characteristics, you start to think Anne is a bit of an idiot.)

Mr. Elliot

Again, 1995 Persuasion does it best. Good old Samuel West can do anything, and he delivers a believable portrayal of a charming yet ultimately shallow and worthless person. Tobias Menzies (2007) is far too smarmy. His Mr. Elliot would never take in Lady Russell; he just makes your skin crawl. 1971 Mr. Elliott is rather a non-entity (which, in a way, is kind of the point of Mr. Elliott).

[Of course, in my version, Persuadable, he is quite different, being charming but also acerbic and amused.]

Lady Russell

The 1995 Lady Russell is well-done. I can believe in her influence over Anne. She also has a modern (for Jane Austen's time) appearance and attitude. However, she is so overbearing, it is hard to believe that Anne was right to trust her seven years earlier. 1971 Lady Russell, while still being forthright and opinionated, is much more motherly and gentle. It is believable that Anne would have listened to this person who had her best interests at heart. Okay, okay, so 2007 Lady Russell IS Alice Krige (the Borg Queen for you Voyager fans), but, like most of the 2007 Jane Austens, the action goes by so quickly, you don't really get to know her.

Captain Harville and Others

1995 Harville
The trying-to-fit-all-of-Austen-into-90-minutes 2007 version gives the minor characters short shrift. The 1971 and 1995 versions are much better in this regard. I prefer the 1995 Captain Harville, but I must mention Michael Culver who plays Captain Harville in the 1971 version. He is one of my favorite actors; he plays Prior Roberts in the Brother Cadfael series and shows up in the occasional PBS mystery.

1971 Harville
Actually, to be fair, the 2007 Captain Harville is pretty decent, but you have to be paying close attention.
2007 Harville with Anne

The Benwicks are fairly interchangeable. The one aspect of Persuasion (1971) I really like is that Louisa flirts with Benwick—we are given some warning of Louisa and Benwick's later romance. On the other hand, Jane Austen's explanation for that romance is completely, and hilariously, believable:
Where could be the attraction [between Louisa and Benwick]? The answer soon presented itself. It had been in [the] situation. They had been thrown together several weeks; they had been living in the same family party. [Anne] was persuaded that any tolerably pleasing young woman who had listened and seemed to feel for [Benwick], would have received the same compliment. He had an affectionate heart. He must love somebody.
Both 1971 and 1995 Mrs. Smiths are lovable. The 2007 Mrs. Smith bears little resemblance to the book and is totally misused plot-wise. Speaking of Mrs. Smith, I must give Jane Austen's description of her:
[Mrs. Smith] had moments only of languor and depression [compared to] hours of occupation and enjoyment. How could it be? [T]his was not a case of fortitude or of resignation only. A submissive spirit might be patient, a strong understanding would supply resolution, but here was something more. Here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature alone. [This is my version of Mrs. Clay--only with a little more moxie and a lot more sardonic wit.]
And one can see why Jane Austen is the great mistress of characterization and should always be respected as such, especially by film makers.

1 comment:

a calvinist preacher said...

I haven't seen the '71 version, just the '95 version and enough of the '07 one to realize it wasn't even close to the '95.

But I must speak up for Amanda Root's portrait of Anne. Only at Kellynch in the opening sequence is she retiring and it is more of resignation than shyness. Even Lady Russell comes off a little timid in the Kellynch scenes. I think the portrayal of Sir Walter is a bit too commanding, if you will, in the scenes at Kellynch and the deference displayed by Anne and L. Russell are feeding off that performance.

But the Anne of Uppercross, Lyme and Bath (in the '95 version) is hardly shy or retiring. If anything, Amanda Root's Anne is a bit too modern in her manners.

Being a former Navy officer, I tho't the 3 Captains came across very well, as did Adm. Croft. It is the self-confidence and decision of a man accustomed to command that most irks Lady Russell, and that he must learn to temper. My daughter will make sure I see the '71 version now, but the only portrayal in '95 that I thought really missed the mark was Mrs. Clay. She is neither elegant nor plausible in Ms. Dean's characterization, instead seeming both ugly and dumb.

In short, I thought both the individual characters cast and the ensemble in the '95 version to be as good as one has a right to expect.