January 11, 2008 / 11:45 AM / 10 years ago

"Persuasion" makes a winning case on PBS

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - "Persuasion," the first installment in the new Jane Austen cycle from "Masterpiece Theatre," finds an excellent, demographic-widening middle road between the stiff, formal attempts of 20 and 30 years ago and flights of cinematic fancy like Patricia Rozema's "Mansfield Park" from 1999.

Writer Simon Burke and director Adrian Shergold have done a remarkable job of compressing into 90 minutes Austen's least-frothy novel without sacrificing the charm of her language. The story's central "message" -- doing the wrong thing for the right reason is preferable to doing the right thing for the wrong reason -- does get lost in the shuffle.

It helps considerably that Sally Hawkins, playing the patient heroine Anne Elliot, has the disturbing beauty and subtly provocative imagination to expose, without resorting to girlish affectation, the emotional and sexual potential that lies in wait under Anne's virginal bosom. Asked occasionally to look straight into the camera when writing in her journal, she does so in a magically direct way that makes the overused device seem fresh again. And in an extraordinary 30-second puckering sequence leading up to the story's climactic embrace, Hawkins creates a candidate for Performing Arts Top 10 Play of the Year.

Among the rest of the solid cast, Rupert Penry-Jones as the long-lost suitor, Capt. Wentworth, is no Colin Firth, yet in his brooding, smoldering way he is faithful to Austen's intentions of being ultimately more intellectually than physically charismatic and in so doing helps maintain the story's arch; he also plays with great expertise the important part of assuring that Hawkins' kiss will be extraordinary.

Sam Hazeldine is excellent as Anne's high-spirited, good-natured brother-in-law, Charles Musgrove; Alice Krige reveals convincingly the integrity in Lady Russell's otherwise shallow moral universe; and Anthony Head plays perfectly Anne's mean-spirited popinjay of a father.

The outstanding production values, whether in the bountiful countryside or in brooding Bath and its fogbound seashore, are elegantly low key.

Cast:

Anne Elliot: Sally Hawkins

Capt. Wentworth: Rupert Penry-Jones

Lady Russell: Alice Krige

Sir Walter Elliott: Anthony Head

Elizabeth Elliott: Julia Davis

Mr. Shepherd: Michael Fenton Stevens

Mrs. Clay: Mary Stockley

Admiral Croft: Peter Wight

Mrs. Croft: Marion Bailey

Mary Musgrove: Amanda Hale

Louisa Musgrove: Jennifer Higham

Charles Musgrove: Sam Hazeldine

Executive producers: Rebecca Eaton (for WGBH), Murray Ferguson; Producer: David Snodin; Teleplay: Simon Burke; Director: Adrian Shergold; Director of photography: David Odd; Editor: Kristina Hetherington; Production designer: David Roger; Costume designer: Andrea Galer; Music: Martin Phipps; Casting: Julia Duff.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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