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CLASSICS ILLUSTRATION

The reading public--O, endangered species--grows understandably wary every time screenwriter, director and cast get their collective hooks into a bona fide literary classic. It doesn't happen every time, but some of the world's most dreadful movies have dropped stillborn from some of the greatest books. Who can imagine Tolstoy's reaction to the overcostumed blather of Hollywood's War and Peace? And if Fitzgerald had gotten one look at airhead Mia Farrow in The Great Gatsby, would he not have vanished into a quart of Old Grand Dad years before he did?

This week, two famous literary heroines come to the screen in separate films, and never the twain shall meet. Roger Michell's Persuasion, from the Jane Austen novel of the same title, is almost everything devotees of that author (and of good moviemaking) could wish for--a faithful, fervent retelling enhanced by some daring cinematic inventions of its own. But Roland Joffe's The Scarlet Letter, after Nathaniel Hawthorne, is a twisted mutant of a thing.

First, the good news from Bath:
The trendsetter in high-toned, literary filmmaking continues to be the Ivory-Merchant-Jhabvala combine, which has done honor to its pet authors, E.M. Forster and Henry James, and sundry others. I-M-J's influence has certainly reached director Michell, a South African trained at the Royal Shakespeare Company. But his witty, beautifully observed adaptation of Austen's quintessential English tale of fallen country snobs and early-nineteenth-century hypochondriacs, flighty husband-seekers and true romantic devotion doesn't mind getting the smudge of real life on it: Compared with Ivory-Merchant's rather anal-retentive style, it's gloriously liberated.

An extraordinary new actress, Amanda Root, stars here as Austen's late-blooming heroine, Anne Elliott. Big-eyed and thin-lipped, Root is the picture of stricken dismay when a family friend reveals to Anne that Frederick Wentworth (Ciaran Hinds), the dashing naval officer with whom she was in love eight years earlier, has returned from sea, enriched by war. On the advice of a meddlesome, class-conscious family friend, Lady Russell (Susan Fleetwood), Anne had broken her engagement because Wentworth was, as they say in our own century, undercapitalized.

But the old fires still smolder, and the film takes us down the difficult road leading to the reserved former lovers' rediscovery of each other. Austen, at once the most precise and generous of novelists, was at her sharpest in this last book (published posthumously), and screenwriter Nick Dear has an unerring instinct for both her satirical tone and the depth of her romantic imagination.

The obstacles in Anne and Frederick's path make up a vivid portrait gallery of English country life. A pair of wonderfully empty-headed sisters, Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove (Victoria Hamilton and Emma Roberts), throw their coquettish charms at Frederick, while Anne's younger sister, Mary (Sophie Thompson), keeps her saintly, wallflowerish sibling occupied with a plethora of imagined ailments and chronic complaints, all contrived to get the attention of her wayward fool of a husband. Meanwhile, a sly cousin (Samuel West) woos Anne with synthetic charm, and a gimpy, likable sea captain named Benwick (Richard McCabe) awakens her sleeping soul with poetry. Still, she keeps her secret.

Anne, a creation her maker once called "almost too good for me," is also saddled with a high-handed older sister and a society obsessed with appearances while undervaluing substance (not to speak of any meaningful utterance by a woman). Austen's novel and Michell's film aim their sharpest darts at Anne's father, Sir Walter Elliott, a ruined baronet whose boundless snobbery and blind folly give the film its strongest dose of humor. Corin Redgrave is spectacularly odious in the part, but no more so than Darlene Johnson's Lady Dalrymple, the imperious (yet penniless) aristocrat Sir Walter courts with a fervor bordering on psychopathy. Captured in candlelight by cinematographer John Daly, Lady Dalrymple looks like some wrinkled monster coughed up from hell: One look and you burst out laughing.

On the other hand, we are authentically uplifted by Anne and Frederick's reinvigorated romance. Over the course of the film, this heroine blooms before our very eyes--intellectually, spiritually and physically--and you may feel like cheering when she at last gets to her famous declaration, rooted in nineteenth-century values: "All the privilege I claim for my own sex is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone."

A little while later, Frederick and Anne exchange just one chaste kiss on a city street, but this has more redemptive power (and more real emotion) than the mechanical orgies in ten Sharon Stone movies. The kiss is not only the crux of courage and liberation for the lovers, it's the moment at which the audience, too, is set free. This time, the close-up of Amanda Root's face is full of radiance, and now, after all of Austen's satirical hooks have been set, all her fine comic ironies distributed, we get a little radiant ourselves in the face of love's triumph.

This is an elegant but spirited film, a world of quality apart from the boisterous 1940 version of Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and a great improvement, I think, on the overly mannered work of Ivory-Merchant. A major Jane Austen revival seems to be under way these days, but it's difficult to imagine any greater honor to her spirit than this timely and inventive version of Persuasion.

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