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Before popping up seemingly out of nowhere when he directed Notting Hill, Roger Michell had had a successful career as a theatre director, at the groundbreaking Royal Court Theatre in London with Samuel Beckett and John Osborne (where he also met Danny Boyle), before moving on to the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and then switching to directing for TV.

Persuasion was his second gig for the BBC, and considering that stories of difficult love (Notting Hill, The Mother, Venus) would be his future, and the theatre was his past, it is the Venn diagram overlap of the two spheres. His cast for Persuasion is theatrical through and through, Amanda Root (an RSC stalwart) playing Jane Austen’s spinster heroine Anne Elliot, a woman coming up to a slow boil on the flame rekindled by Captain Wentworth, the recently returned suitor she was persuaded to reject years before. Wentworth is played by Ciarán Hinds, also an RSC old hand. His is a knockout Wentworth (no wonder Hollywood spooned him up), a bluff old sea dog now reconciled to a life on his own, in the same way that Elliot has also come to terms with the prospect of being, without a husband, a social nobody. From these two unlikely characters, using actors Hollywood would never cast in the roles (ie they’re good looking but they don’t set your pants on fire), and carefully fanning one of the spinsterish Austen’s most passionate, personal works, Michell slowly builds a stressful, uncertain romance that will have you digging the fingernails into your palms – it would certainly make sense for these two lonely individuals to fall for each other, but they’ve got to do it for all the right reasons, not just because they’re both available, right?

Look down the cast list, from Corin Redgrave and Fiona Shaw to Samuel West and Simon Russell Beale – Michell has A-list British theatrical talent to work with. Another weapon in his armoury is the film’s production design, by William Dudley, who shows us the 18th century as it really might look – lived-in, scuffed, possibly in need of a lick of paint here and there.

The result is a film of great subtlety and believability, made for TV but gaining a theatrical release in the US (which doesn’t happen often), a simmering romance that sneaks up unawares, Michell catching the characters’ turbulent inner feelings without ever getting the megaphone out. In its own quiet way it is, as Miss Austen would doubtless say, kick-ass stuff.

Persuasion – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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