NICK DEAR's (Screenwriter) many theatre credits include "The Art of Success" (a portrait of the artist William Hogarth) at the Royal Shakespeare Company and subsequently at the Manhattan Theatre Club, New York. It won him the John Whitting Award, and he was nominated for Lawrence Oliver Awards for both this and "A Family Affair." He was playwright in residence at the Royal Exchange, Manchester in 1987-88. His plays include "The Last Days of Don Juan" (after Tirso de Molina; Royal Shakespeare Company, 1990); "In the Ruins" (Royal Court Theatre, 1990); "Food of Love" (Almeida 1988); "A Family Affair (after Ostrovsky; Cheek by Jowel 1988); "The Art of Success" (Royal Shakespeare Company, 1986) and "Temptation" (Royal Shakespeare Company, 1984). He has written the libretti for two operas, "A Family Affair" (1993), and "Siren Sony" (1994), both premiered at the Almedia Opera Festival. He has also written extensively for BBC Radio.
Nick has recently completed screenplays of Dostoyevsky's "The Gambler" for Channel 4 and "The Last Days of Don Juan" for Hollywood. In August this year Nick's new play "Zenobia" received its world premiere in a Royal Shakespeare Company/Young Vic co-production. "Persuasion" is his first feature film screenplay.
It struck me that, although Persuasion is set in 1814 and was written in 1816, it's treatment of an adult love story in a very realistic way was intensely modern. There's almost nothing in the way that Jane Austen describes the psychology of the two central characters, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, that would be out of place in a story set today -- with the one exception that because of the nature of society in those days, the woman actually can't be active. When she decides she's in love with a man, she can't do anything about it, she can't set any wheels in motion. And that's the main structural point of the story, and the most difficult one to achieve: how do you have a central character who's in every scene but who has to be passive throughout?
My interest in the story was not so much that it came from that period, but that I felt that it was the earliest modern love story. The first one that doesn't rely on "classicalness" or a particular narrative machinery of its time. It just seemed to be very modern, and mature, in contrast to those novels for which she's more famous: Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, which were written twenty years before.
Persuasion, 41 when she died. She had been living in the south of England, and had never been anywhere else as far as we know. She mixed in society quite a bit, and she'd entertained affairs that went nowhere -- not sexual affairs -- but she'd certainly had admirers. She had seen other members of her family married off, and I think that by the time she came to write Persuasion she had a very hard-edged attitude to falling in love--but at the same time, a deep respect for it.
Mary Elliot's cottage at Uppercross in Persuasion is probably Jane Austen's description of an environment that she knows very well. But at the same time she does also know the great house environment very well. She's always gone to the balls, she's always moved in that kind of world. One of the things which fascinates me is that she famously never, in all her books, wrote a scene in which men are talking without women present. Because she only writes what she knows -- the first rule of Jane Austen -- she never writes in any detail about peasants or the aristocracy. She writes about the world that she knows, and she had no real understanding of how men would speak to each other if the ladies weren't there. And so every male character in Austen's books is filtered through the eyes of the ladies in the room.
My intention was to write a film that had more in common with Ingmar Bergman than with the standard adaptation of Jane Austen. There's a psychological intensity to the story, a realism in the way people behave. There's a kind of 'held in' quality to the two main characters in which they don't always express their feelings.
The difficulties in adapting Persuasion for the screen were firstly, finding a structure which allowed us to stick very faithfully to what happens in the novel; and then secondly having a central character who hardly speaks for most of the first half and therefore can't motor the action along as a central character conventionally does. That's quite tough. And I think one of the major difficulties was trying to replace the wit that's in Jane Austen's narrative, but which you can't use because it's almost all in the author's voice telling us about characters, with a certain wit or lightness that came from the characters themselves. It's a craft job, interpreting the novel for oneself and then finding a film language for it.
Where television conventionally relies on people speaking all the time, film will have many scenes in which people don't speak. Meaning accrues through what people do and how they look. We've attempted to capture something of that in the film. There is plenty of dialogue, but there are also plenty of times where you're looking particularly at Anne and there is no dialogue. I think it's quite a hard structure to transfer to a single film, because there are some twists but they are very delicate ones. This is a story which is not driven by plot. The plot is accident. The main character can't have any influence on the plot: the whole point is that she is manipulated by events. Other people say, "You will be in Bath at Christmas," and she is in Bath. Until right at the end, when she puts her foot down and says, "This is my decision." She's never capable of saying "Right, I hear Wentworth's in Bath, I'm going to Bath now'.
"Persuasion" is the story of hidden, repressed emotions, which have to find their own language in order to emerge. It is also a story about self-will and determination, which contains the basic tension of all good love stories. Jane Austen wants us to see that man can be emotional and romantic without losing any of his virility and she also wants us to see that a young woman can have what she calls mettle, strength of purpose and character, without losing her femininity, without losing those virtues which Austen, in her period, thought were essential to her heroine. She must be feminine, she musn't say 'I'm getting on a horse and going to Bath', she must accord by the laws which govern the behavior of women. The film -- and the novel -- centers on the struggle between these two forces and the way in which persuasion -- the persuasion of Lady Russell -- influences Anne's behavior. Right at the end of the film Lady Russell says to Wentworth, "If persuasion was exercised, it was exercised on the part of safety." To what extent is it someone's duty to be persuaded to do the safe thing, rather than be willful?
I can't help but be moved by the happy conclusion of this story. You are in love with somebody that you were in love with eight and a half years ago, you've never found anybody else who quite fits the bill, and you both turn other people down in the meantime. Then you meet again, and despite all the things that militate against it, finally you do get together. It's a classic Cinderella story, really. Austen was very conscious that she was writing a Cinderella story, that the girl-in-rags was basically the one who was put-upon by two ugly sisters and the step-mother (in the guise of Lady Russell), and she eventually gets to go to the ball. It's a time-honored tale that doesn't go away."