The best thing about the 1995 version of Persuasion is the ending, the last two shots. Together they last barely a second, but they form a perfect and stunningly beautiful climax to a classic Jane Austen story, a romance full of subtle and delicious tension.
It’s the story of Anne Elliot, a woman in her late twenties, from a wealthy family, unmarried, sad and bored. Eight years earlier, she had accepted the proposal of a dashing and smart young sailor named Frederick Wentworth, but he was poor and without good family connections, and her snobbish father and sister convinced her to change her mind. The movie begins at a point just before Wentworth returns from the Napoleonic Wars, a captain now, fabulously wealthy, and just as handsome as ever. It’s clear that he’s looking for a bride, the courtly way he dotes on all the women. It’s clear, too, that Anne is out of the running, the way he won’t even look at her. On a group outing he helps a younger lady across a rugged stretch of rocks but doesn’t stay to help Anne who’s following close behind. But then, late in the film, in a tense and possibly tragic moment, he’s there behind her as she climbs into carriage, and he helps her up, gently holds her at the curve above her waist, and though he still won’t look her in the eye, we know.
What makes this romance a classic is the sea. We see it from the film’s beginning, when Anne’s father speaks loathingly of navy men, to the pivotal moment when everyone gathers for a feast in candlelight, Wentworth the guest of honor, and he declares that he’ll never have a woman on his ship because it’s impossible to make a ship suitable for one. All the women at the table gasp and laugh, but his sister, who is married to a retired naval admiral - she’s crossed the Atlantic four times, she’s been to the West Indies - she says, “None of us want to be in calm waters all our life.” In that moment we see in Anne’s eyes a great longing, not overstated, and we see it again later on when her family accompanies Wentworth to the coast for a holiday. They all stroll together along the shore and there’s Anne looking out across the waves at the ships. Amanda Root plays Anne brilliantly, reserved and restrained yet plainly full of passion and desire. She carries so much of the story with her eyes.
Persuasion was the last novel Austen completed, and the story is one of her most nuanced and sophisticated, and this film version (there are three that I’m aware of) best captures the subtle friction between its characters, and its theme, delivered by the symbol of the sea, of seizing life and going as far with it as possible.
- Joe Miller