Looking Back at Jane Austen in Film

Emma (2020)

Jane Austen has always played well with cinema audiences. From the start, Austen’s fiction was intended for wide public consumption, read aloud to family and friends. This performative aspect of her work helps to explain why Austen has translated so well on screen. From classic takes, to films that explore her themes with a contemporary directness, Austen takes many guises.

With a new adaptation of Emma released in cinemas this Friday, there’s no better time to look at how Austen has made the transition from literature’s maiden aunt to Hollywood major player.

THE CLASSIC – Persuasion (dir. Roger Michell, 1995)

Filmed by the BBC and shown in cinemas, Persuasion is the story of Anne Elliot (Amanda Root) and Captain Wentworth (Ciaran Hinds). Anne allows herself, aged 19, to be persuaded by her friend, Lady Russell, that she is not ready for marriage when asked by a young Frederick Wentworth. Russell’s interference sees Wentworth join the Navy and Anne thus leading a life of quiet desperation.

We then meet 27-year-old Anne as her family are leaving their home, Kellynch Hall. They can no longer afford to live there. Anne welcomes a move to frugality. Her father, Sir Walter Elliot (a cold, blustery Corin Redgrave) yearns for the social scene of Bath. Filmed in leisurely chronology, Persuasion doesn’t rewrite the rulebook, but instead takes its time. This is a slow burn love story.

Anne meets Wentworth again when he comes to visit her brother-in-law. Director Roger Michell is careful to point out that while age is considered to have improved Wentworth, Anne is said to have lost her bloom. The production brilliantly captures the autumnal tone of Austen’s novel. These are still young people, but time moves differently in Austen’s worlds. We are given a landscape of turning leaves and decay underfoot.

As we transfer the action to Bath, the newly-installed Elliots socialise with Captain Wentworth and his circle of naval friends. Although a classic adaptation in every other respect, Persuasion here avoids the temptation to show Bath as a hedonistic playground. Bustling with extras, the camera observes a once-fashionable town, trading on former glory. The same people, the same conversations. Persuasion is a film of ennui – it’s all been done before. During their gathering, Wentworth overhears Anne discussing the fragility of love with his friend, Captain Harville (Robert Glenister). A man of comparatively few words up to this point, Wentworth rises to the challenge and pens Anne a letter, declaring all he feels for her.

Root and Hinds may be unlikely romantic leads, but they have a genuine chemistry. As a classically-styled production, Persuasion is unusual in that it does not overplay the period detail. The clothes look lived-in; there is enough muck in the street to please the hardcore fans. As Anne finds her voice, and Wentworth his courage, this Persuasion – quiet, but sure of itself – is hard to resist.

THE HIT – Sense and Sensibility (dir. Ang Lee, 1995)

While Persuasion celebrates love later in life, Sense and Sensibility is Austen’s tale of love burning too fast and too bright.

A passion project for its screenwriter and star, Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility conquered Hollywood. Winning a Golden Globe for Best Adapted Screenplay (Thompson’s ‘Golden Spheres’ acceptance speech well worth a Google), and 7 Academy Award nominations, Sense and Sensibility bridges the purist beauty of Persuasion and the populist makeover of Clueless. Directed by Ang Lee, this painterly film feels like stepping into a Gainsborough. Thompson, meanwhile, is careful to underline that Sense and Sensibility is a story of grief and struggle.

We join the Dashwoods after the death of their father. Older brother John inherits the family home with his wife, Fanny (a wickedly acerbic Harriet Walter). Mrs Dashwood (Gemma Jones) and her daughters Elinor (Emma Thompson), Marianne (Kate Winslet) and Margaret (Emilie Francois) have to find accommodation elsewhere. Offered a house in Devon by Mrs Dashwood’s cousin, Sir John Middleton (Robert Hardy), the Dashwood women arrive to find that local society isn’t particularly elegant, but Sir John Middleton and his mother-in-law, Mrs Jennings (Elisabeth Spriggs) are warm and inviting. During an evening of music, they are joined by the Middletons’ friend, Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman). Arriving late, Brandon stands at the doorway observing Marianne at the piano. He is smitten.

On paper, the book should end here. Brandon is a catch – independently wealthy, in pretty good shape – but Marianne, not feeling that connection, demurs. She has been raised on the poetry of Cowper and Byron – all the feels, all the hormones. She wants wild, chaotic passion, or nothing at all. During a walk with Margaret, Marianne falls and sprains her ankle. Assisted by a young man who carries Marianne home, she makes sure to catch his name. John Willoughby.

A relationship develops. They go for carriage rides together and Marianne gives Willoughby a lock of her hair. Marianne is too caught up in Willoughby’s easy masculinity to care about propriety. Played by Greg Wise, Thompson makes sure that we are seduced by Willoughby as much as Marianne is. As quickly as the bond has been built, cracks begin to emerge. Willoughby stops answering Marianne’s letters. During a visit to London (organised by Mrs Jennings), Elinor and Marianne attend a society ball. As they make their way through a heaving crowd, Marianne spots Willoughby. His companion, a glamorous Miss Grey, is not only his date – they are engaged to be married.

While Ang Lee details the ritual of Regency life with a certain detachment (an elegant game of boules becomes ripe with comic possibility), he puts the emotion of Sense and Sensibility – raw, ungovernable – at the heart of the narrative. The girls’ trip is cut short, and they head home. Stopping off to visit Mrs Jennings’ daughter, Marianne falls ill and descends into a deep fever. Thompson earns her Best Actress nomination, pleading with Marianne to live. Despite the odds, Marianne survives. As she recovers, Marianne begins to see Brandon’s loyalty and friendship in a new light.

By Thompson trimming down the secondary characters, she creates a story that feels fresh and modern; chasing after unsuitable boys is not just a Regency vice. Focusing on the central narrative strand, but emphasising Austen’s favourite themes (friends, family, money) Sense and Sensibility not only wowed the critics, it turned Austen into box-office gold.

Watched by audiences who wouldn’t normally consider period drama as their go-to; Emma Thompson’s no-nonsense script, and Lee’s sensitive direction, makes Austen accessible and bankable. Twenty-five years on, Sense and Sensibility balances between artistry and profitability. Austen would most definitely approve.

AUSTEN DEFROCKED – Mansfield Park (dir. Patricia Rozema, 1999)

When looking at Austen on film, it’s important to bear in mind that the hits and classics only show us part of the picture. Directed by Patricia Rozema, Mansfield Park is a daring look behind the elegance of Austen’s fiction. Digging into this thorny, complex novel, Rozema (performing double duty as screenwriter) reveals a story where Austen’s concerns have evolved into an exploration of society at large.

We experience Mansfield Park exclusively through the eyes of its main character, Fanny Price (played by Frances O’Connor). Living in Portsmouth, when her overstretched family is unable to support her, Price is sent to live with her relatives, the Bertrams, at Mansfield Park. We meet Fanny aged 18, still a Price, never a Bertram.  Fanny is friends with youngest brother, Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller) but scorned by the rest of the young Bertram clan; Edmund’s sisters Maria and Julia, and older brother, Tom. The emotional life of Mansfield Park; cold and stagnant, gets a jolt with the arrival of family friends, the Crawfords.

Brother and sister Henry and Mary are sophisticated, beautiful and a little bit sly. Mary (Embeth Davidtz) recognises Edmund’s partiality towards her, while Henry (Alessandro Nivola) plays a much more dangerous game. He settles on Maria Bertram (Victoria Hamilton), who is already engaged. The Crawfords create havoc at Mansfield, where Henry moves from Maria to Fanny (who is not impressed with him at all) then back to a newly-married Maria. They begin an illicit affair, until one night they are found having sex by Edmund and Fanny. As the scandal breaks, Mary Crawford goes into crisis management. She insists Maria gets a divorce. Her coldness shocks Edmund, finally realising Mary’s true nature.

This emphasis on sexuality seems to come from nowhere, but teenage Austen was hooked on 18th century novels, including Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. Filled with characters acting on instinct rather than virtue, Jane’s parents (especially her father) did not believe in censorship and let her read the book. However, in Mansfield Park Austen goes one further than Fielding’s pastoral sensuality – here, actions have consequences.

A dark, scenic trip into the hypocrisy of Austen’s times, Rozema cleverly weaves post-colonial themes, hinted at in Austen’s text, into the body of the film. On a carriage journey along the coast, Fanny spots a slave ship in the bay. The wind carries anguished cries from the hull of the boat. In a scene where Fanny finds a sketchbook left out by Tom (a souvenir from a business trip to Antigua), Price flicks through the drawings. One after another, they depict cruelness and depravity. Slaves abused physically and sexually, at the hands of father and son.

By looking at the novel from a modern perspective, Mansfield Park connects the clues already left by Austen. Where we might feel on safe ground with a classic or a hit, Mansfield Park reminds us that Austen’s early death, aged 41, leaves questions about what the author would have written next. For every critic who labels Austen a lightweight, Mansfield Park is the piece that refuses to fit.

While we have moved away from the Austenmania of the Nineties, films like Mansfield Park point to Austen’s next move. Dissecting the bonds of family and society, what Austen found was not always appealing. While Austen knew plenty, she was limited to what could be published on the page during her lifetime. Adaptations of Austen now have a degree of freedom that would have been unimaginable to the author. Whatever stance film-makers take in representing her, it’s clear that there is plenty more to be found within her work. Film, instead of simplifying Austen’s work, amplifies it – without censorship, without barriers – and passes it on.

by Helen Tope

Helen has been writing film and arts reviews for ten years. She graduated in 1998 with a degree in English Literature, and her areas of interest include period drama and film noir.

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