Persuasion won four BAFTA awards, including best “single drama” made for television. Yet for a film as esteemed as it is, it has always felt overshadowed by its proximity to BBC’s beloved production of Pride and Prejudice. Perhaps that is appropriate given its heroine’s fear that her time has come and gone and that she missed her opportunity to seize her destiny.
Persuasion may appear at first to be an unorthodox choice for a list about Growing Older. Anne Elliot (Amanda Root) is not yet middle-aged, though the prospect of becoming an Old Maid hangs over the film’s narrative as a central fear and guiding theme. Contrasts between aging prematurely and aging well are central to the story.
In the film’s first speech, Anne’s father disdains naval officers as a class of people, claiming that the harshness of that life weathers those who choose it, making them look older than they are. Actually, though, it is the idleness of the upper-class that enfeebles them. Anne’s married sister is a hypochondriac, an ailment common to the rich in Austen’s fiction. As Anne comes into her own, her appearance changes. She becomes more vital, and even her somewhat obtuse father comments on her improved appearance.
The Arts & Faith list is not simply a list of films about old people. It is about the process of aging itself. As characters pass from one stage of life to another they must reevaluate their priorities, values, and guiding principles. Anne becomes older and wiser by becoming independent. Her marriage is not the means through which that independence is gained, rather it is the final evidence of it. Early in the film, Anne insists that she does not blame Lady Russell for advising her to reject Wentworth’s offer of marriage, nor does she blame herself for heeding that advice. Towards the end, before she reconnects with Wentworth, she defies her father’s pressure to call on a wealthy relative, choosing instead to visit a poor school friend. Finally standing up to her father (and for herself and her values) in a small conflict demonstrates that she is ready to act independently about the issues more central to her life and happiness.
The elderly couple of Admiral and Mrs. Croft provide a contrasting example for Anne (and the audience) to that of Anne’s father and friends. They order their lives and decisions around their love, bending circumstances to it. Lady Russell counsels prudence to Anne, while Anne’s father and sisters order their lives around convenience, trying (and failing) to bend love to it.
Captain Benwick is also a foil for Anne. In a central episode, she meets the naval officer who postponed his wedding until he could make more money. He is living in mourning after his intended died while he was at sea. Benwick’s inability to move forward with his life paradoxically ages him prematurely (he thinks his life is already over) and arrests his own spiritual and emotional development. It is telling that he drowns himself in Romantic poets, those champions of seizing the day and living for the moment. It is more telling that Anne (in this case, I think, acting as Austen’s mouthpiece) appreciates the poets but cautions him to balance his reading with some prose. “Though art gone and forever,” they intone, simultaneously quoting Sir Walter Scott. In the film’s climactic speech, Anne claims for women that they love longer than men “after all hope is gone.” It’s easy to forget that the antecedent to this conversation is a case where the lover, not just the love, has died. In other words, implicit in the film’s representation of hope and endurance is the belief in a resurrection or a life after death.
For some, this next point may seem oblique to standard definitions of “spiritually significant,” but Persuasion well illustrates how much of life happens while other people are talking. Anne and Frederick’s climactic coming together occurs while both are silent and well-meaning companion chatters on, oblivious to the emotional significance of their meeting. So much of the film’s forward progress is denoted by something outside of speech. I was reminded in watching the film about Richard Foster’s chapter on Silence in Celebration of Discipline. Anne hardly practices silence as an intentional spiritual discipline — it is thrust upon her. Yet in it and through it she comes to know herself. Too often speech is an evasion, not only meant to distract others but to persuade ourselves. Part of growing older, and wiser, is learning to harness (we never truly master) the power of words.