In This Fine Romance, Virtue Is Rewarded

The unlikeliest movie mini-trend of the year, right up there with movies about Las Vegas low life, is the sudden spate of films inspired by Jane Austen, a writer who, having died in 1817, never got to weigh in on the subject of lap dancing. The trend began almost subliminally, with "Clueless," a liberal teen update of "Emma." In December we will get "Sense and Sensibility," starring and adapted by Emma Thompson and directed by the Taiwan-born Ang Lee ("Eat Drink Man Woman"). The BBC will soon air its new production of "Pride and Prejudice," and writer/director Douglas McGrath is preparing the original "Emma," without the 90210 Zip code. R wouldn't seem that we're living in an age that's particularly welcoming to Austen's bracing ironies, her intimately calibrated dissection of manners or her finely chiseled moral distinctions. But perhaps that's the point of her newfound popularity: she's a splash of clear, cool water on our morally groggy foreheads.

No greasepaint: Whatever the reason, we can only be grateful for the first arrival, Persuasion, fait fully adapted from Austen's last, posthumously published novel. It sets a standard the rest will be hard pressed to equal. Two men of the English theater, director Roger Michell and playwright Nick Dear, and an exquisite ensemble of actors (many are veterans of the Royal Shakespeare Company) have subtly but brilliantly refurbished the conventions of the costume drama. "Persuasion" is free of the plummy scent of greasepaint and theatrical oratory--it's very much a movie--and it doesn't look like a glossy brochure for Old Country Estates. The upper-middle-class Regency world itevokes feels scuffed and lived in, and the urgency of its emotions, however quietly spoken, can pierce the heart.

Austen's heroine, Anne Elliot (Amanda Root), faces spinsterhood at the age of 27, having been persuaded, eight years earlier, to reject the proposal of the man she loved--and still loves. Her trusted friend Lady Russell (Susan Fleetwood) deemed him unsuitable, owing to his lack of fortune. The Elliot family's fortunes, in the meantime, have fallen into decline: Sir Walter Elliot (Corin Redgrave, wonderfully loathsome), Anne's peerlessly snobbish widowed father, has been forced to rent their ancestral home to Admiral Croft (John Woodvine) and his wife (the dazzling Fiona Shaw). Sir Walter and his oldest and favorite daughter, the haughty Elizabeth (Phoebe Nicholls), remove themselves to Bath. The unwanted Anne is sent off to attend to her hypochondriacal sister Mary (the hilarious Sophie Thompson), who lives with her husband Charles Musgrove (Simon Russell Beale) on a neighboring country estate.

It is there that Anne first re-encounters the lost love of her life. Frederick Wentworth (Cioran Hinds) is now a wealthy captain of the navy, having returned from the Napoleonic war with riches and honor. But he finds Anne "so altered he would not have known her." His bitterness toward her is self-evident, and he turns his attentions toward the silly Musgrove sisters, Louisa (Emma Roberts) and Henrietta (Victoria Hamilton), who find him a most eligible catch. Is there any hope that Anne and Frederick can rekindle their aborted love?

Written in the final year of her life, "Persuasion" is considered the most autobiographical of Austen's novels. It's a comedy tinged with melancholy and the ache of missed opportunities. From an author who satirized the follies of romanticism, and tweaked moonstruck romantic excess, it's the closest she came to revealing her own yearning soul. Miehell is wonderfully sensitive to the shifting tones of the tale, which can pivot from acid social satire to Cinderella fable at the turn of a gossip's neck. The movie is hushed, sotto vote: we become eavesdroppers on a society caught in those intimate moments when its public mask is down. My one complaint is technical: the sound is second rate. With dialogue this sterling, it's a shame to miss a single line.

Amanda Root's Anne is hardly a conventional screen heroine. Plain and sad eyed, she doesn't make much of an initial impression, which is part of Michell's strategy. Anne has been shunted off to the side of her family. She's an observer, a listener, but we gradually come to see the inner beauty that distinguishes her from her sisters: an unsanctimonious virtue that sets her apart from her family's naked social ambitions. The source of the painful comedy that separates her and Frederick is that neither lover ever gets the chance to speak his or her heart. Hinds, who resembles Peter Finch, and has some of Alan Rickman's snaky sexuality, is as physically commanding as Root is unpre-possessing, and therein lies their surprising chemistry. "Persuasion" is proof that the most repressed love stories can have the sweetest payoff. Like Anne herself, the movie reveals its wonders slowly. By the time it's reached full bloom, you may find yourself in an unreasonably happy state.