Masterpieces and mysteries

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  January 14, 2008

And the new WGBH productions? The first three run a compact 85 minutes each — reasonable for the short Persuasion and Northanger Abbey (both published after Austen’s death) but insufficient to do justice to Mansfield Park, which should have been accorded the 170 minutes that the new Sense and Sensibility gets. Directed by Iain B. MacDonald, this Mansfield Park omits all mention of Sir Thomas Bertram’s estate in Antigua and poor relation Fanny Price’s questioning her uncle about the slave trade, and at the end there’s no time for Fanny to return to Portsmouth and be pursued there by Henry Crawford. There is room, however, for much smirking and swaggering, the contemporary notion of making Jane Austen hip. With her full lips, cascading blond tresses, and inviting décolletage, Billie Piper’s Fanny looks more like the poster of Julie Christie in Far from the Madding Crowd, or a serving wench from Tom Jones, than Austen’s meek-to-a-fault heroine. She’s sweet, she’s worthy, she blushes and giggles, but she has no interior life. All the same, she snags her cousin Edmund (a priggish Blake Ritson) — how can he resist when she washes her hair in his presence? He grabs her and kisses her; more blushes and smiles, then cut to waltzing happily ever after.

The new Persuasion, on the other hand, seems way too long, even though it’s 20 minutes shorter than the 1995 BBC/WGBH version directed by the excellent Roger Michell and starring Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds. Root, with her cheerful reserve and unaffected pluck, is an exemplary Anne Elliot, as close to becoming Jane as any actress ever has. And as Captain Wentworth, Hinds, looking like a haunted Donald Sutherland, manages an air of naval command that doesn’t disguise his inner turmoil. Here, Adrian Shergold turns Austen’s meditation into melodrama: Sally Hawkins’s Anne heaves in distress, bites her lip, and allows a teardrop to fall onto her open journal. Where Austen is light-hearted in her social scolding, Shergold is mean-spirited, giving us a pretentious Sir Walter Elliot (Anthony Head), a disagreeable Mary Musgrove (Amanda Hale), a nasty Louisa (Jennifer Higham) and Henrietta (Rosamund Stephen) Musgrove. Hawkins herself is a pickle-face who seems to derive no joy from life. Alice Krige’s Lady Russell is very young, and Rupert Penry-Jones as Captain Wentworth could be the dictionary illustration of callow — he’s quite unbelievable as a naval officer. Even Simon Burke’s screenplay is defective: if you haven’t just read the novel (and possibly if you have), you’ll be hard-pressed to keep Captain Harville and James Benwick straight — or to maintain a straight face at the end, when Anne goes running all over Bath in search of Captain Wentworth. (Some unimpressed English viewers compared this sequence to Run, Lola, Run.) Only Tobias Menzies as Anne’s cousin William Elliot preserves his dignity.

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