A bad hair debut for Anne Elliot

Why is it that British remakes of Jane Austen’s novels cast such homely women for the lead parts? In last night’s PBS Masterpiece version of ‘Persuasion’ there were many liberties taken with the story and dialogue, but that’s understandable, considering that it is a low-budget 90-minute production. It was, in general, sensitively done. But Anne Elliot was made to look like Jane Eyre lost in a Jane Austen story.

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is small, plain, and poor. We expect her to be drab. Anne Elliot is a lovely, privileged, and cultured young woman of 27, whose regret since she was persuaded to break her engagement with Frederick Wentworth eight years before has made her thin and faded when the story begins. But all of that changes when her former fiancé comes back into the picture and the ocean breezes of Lyme and the admiration of her cousin Mr. Elliot, heir to her father’s estate, put the bloom back in her cheeks and the bounce back in her step.

Last night’s Anne Elliot is small, plain, and poorly dressed, and the bloom never comes back and the wrenchingly bad hairdo is neither softened nor varied. Captain Wentworth is played well. He is big and tall and he looks directly at Anne from the beginning, reassessing her and slowly regaining his admiration for her. But it has to be admiration based on her sterling qualities because there is no obvious physical attraction between them. Mr. Rochester falls passionately in love with Jane Eyre despite her lack of beauty. Captain Wentworth’s returning admiration and love transform Anne Elliot back into the beauty that she truly is.

As for the novel’s climax, it is a very emotionally charged sequence of events in which Captain Wentworth declares his love for Anne in a secret letter and Anne represses her feelings until she encounters him on the street and, “smiles reined in and spirits dancing in private rapture,” they exchange promises once again. In this remake Anne is given the letter through a friend and spends the last few minutes of the film running up and down the streets of Bath, the open letter clasped in her hand, searching for Captain Wentworth and looking frazzled as well as unappealing when she encounters him. The lovely and reserved Anne Elliot would never have behaved so wildly, nor displayed her emotions so flagrantly. It would have been, well, unladylike.

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