Domestic Bliss

Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

FOR A WRITER who died two centuries ago, Jane Austen is pretty active these days. Between the current Persuasion, last summer's Clueless (modeled on Emma), and new versions of Emma and Sense and Sensibility due later in the year, there are nearly as many Austen adaptations as there are vampire films. The author may not be around to reap the financial benefits, but she has cashed in on a more fluid identity. Too often circumscribed by literary history as simply the godmother of the modern novel, Austen has become one of this decade's more brilliantly postmodern auteurs, her critiques of contemporary life now subtly disguised under cover of the costume drama or teen-pic.

What's more, this isn't even a new trick for her. In the early 1800s, while working the territory of the "domestic" or romantic novel (the once-denigrated literary equivalent of the "women's picture"), Austen shed a penetrating light on rigid gender roles and stifling social forces which, alas, haven't changed much. And if Austen stands to sell in the '90s, it may be because the public has proven unimpressed with the dangerous liaisons in Showgirls and Jade. True, Jefferson in Paris and The Scarlet Letter bombed as well. But the industry's persistent attempts to revive the costume drama suggest our longing for a world in which a woman descending a ladder--as opposed to performing a lapdance--could enable sexual tension or romantic possibility. On the other hand, maybe it's because writers like Jane Austen command a lower asking price than Joe Eszterhas.

In any case, Persuasion certainly doesn't hark back to simpler times, nor does it exploit the genre's potential for mere tastefulness. If anything, the movie delivers a harrowing experience, as even its most innocuous moments carry a devastating weight. The aforementioned ladder scenario is played out twice: first as a way of indicating a possible love affair, and later to reveal the very real dangers that might occur when a woman of the time dared to act for herself.

Briefly, Persuasion charts the coming of age and romantic tribulations of a young British woman circa 1814. Anne Elliot (Amanda Root), the shy daughter of a spendthrift baronet, is trying at the old age of 27 to escape the label of spinster. Her chance at marriage seems to have passed eight years ago, when she was persuaded to break an engagement because the suitor, Frederick Wentworth (Ciaran Hinds), had "no fortune and no connections." Since that time, Wentworth has managed to rise in wealth and status through his tenure as a navy captain during the Napoleonic Wars; when he returns to Anne's neck of the woods, he's still bitter about the past rejection. But circumstance can steer fortune in either direction, and Anne eventually finds herself blessed with two gentleman callers: her attentive cousin William (Samuel West) and a gentler, still-lovestruck Wentworth.

Director Roger Michell's greatest achievement here comes in approximating Austen's narrative voice through his visual style; his camera seems to catch every stray glance and biting line of stray conversation, measuring its impact on Anne's weathered face. While in Merchant-Ivory films the characters' refined suppression of emotion appears effortless (the performances are disciplined to a fault), Root's Anne seems beleaguered from the start, exhausted from the chore of keeping a stiff upper lip. The conventions of good manners and taste, and some even crueler coincidences, keep her within the prescribed role of observer. She rarely says what she really thinks: Her lot in life--like most women of the time--is to be supportive of others while withholding her own interests and desires.

Even more than its portrait of pre-arranged unions and enforced compliance, the film derives its bleak tone from the careful deployment of period language. The dialogue in Persuasion is cloaked, requiring careful maneuvering by the characters to indicate what they're feeling without seeming the least bit uncouth. One of the later conversations between Anne and Frederick revolves around faint apologies for missed connections, while the subtext boils down to a furtive, "Do you still want me?" Though desperate circumstances eventually require the characters to speak more directly, the restrictions have been so painstakingly laid out as to make the lovers' efforts seem nearly pointless. In this way, Persuasion is anchored by a more authentic layer of tragedy than anything in the Merchant-Ivory oeuvre; indeed, only Scorsese's The Age of Innocence has come as close to articulating the ultimate failure of language in this milieu.

That this conundrum gives way to an earned happy ending is as powerful and unexpected as the film itself. But romantic resolution aside, the story's real triumph is that Anne, against all manner of persuasion, at last finds her voice. And, in a way, so did its author: Persuasion, though not Austen's finest work, was the first of her six books to be published (posthumously) under her own name. Just as Austen's own dark victory gains resonance from a context of extreme social confinement, Persuasion shows its heroine's accomplishment to be nothing short of miraculous. Not even Michell seems sure whether Anne's personal success precedes her self-esteem or vise-versa. Wisely, he suggests that there's little difference between the two.

Since Anne's crowning moment is difficult to pinpoint, Michell knows that the ending can't help but seem a bit implausible--especially after his movie has so thoroughly detailed the factors that ought to have prevented it from happening. Significantly, the director sets his conclusion amid a frivolous street carnival in Bath, using it to point out the almost surreal magic of Austen's final chapter. Here, as elsewhere, the art of Persuasion comes through its faith that wild possibility can exist even within the most rigid of conventions--such as, for instance, the costume-drama genre.

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