1. Persuasion (1995)
So you're prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice on Valentine's day, and will have to deal with full-metal Austen. Where to turn first? I suggest here. A 90-minute adaptation of the shortest of Austen's big 4 novels. Since it was her last and was finished not long before she died at 41, one wonders if it wasn't written under the sternest deadline of all.
Aside from the polite length, another selling point is the focus of her female characters on men who actually DO something - in this case serve in Her Majesty's Navy. This is not a swashbuckler but at least there are a few recognizable male characters upon which to hang your dramatic cutlass.
Our heroine, Anne Elliot (Amanda Root) is the grown model middle daughter of the dim, shallow, spendthrift widower Sir Walter Elliot. His affairs are in such a state that he will soon have to "re-trench" to rented quarters and let out his beloved estate, perhaps to a Navy admiral. He dislikes the Navy because, in the Napoleonic Wars, it brings men of "obscure birth" to prominence and wealth. Corrin Redgrave's sniggering, animated, precise, snippy readings of Austen's dialogue, while nibbling on maccaroons and fruit dainties, are very funny. He is not effeminate, exactly. He is just a man who maybe has never broken a sweat or even touched the ground in his entire life.
With her younger sister (Emma Thompson's hilarious younger sister, Sophie) married to a wealthy neighbor, and her older sister turning shrewish and aged (rather too shrewish in this movie, I think. Austen's version is thoughtless but not strident), Ann at 27 has "lost her bloom" and spends her free time convinced she would have been happier with the love of her life whom she rejected at 19, under the influence of her intrusive but engaging female neighbor and guardian of sorts. Her suitor, a penniless local gentry, has gone off to the Navy and 8 years later is returning as the wealthy (through war-time booty) and dashing Captain Wentworth. I don't know how large Ciaran Hinds really is, but his Captain Wentworth appears positively oaken in volume and mass and his voice rumbles across dinner parties with tales of his adventures while Ann's female in-laws giggle and coo.
Another interesting aspect are the dinner parties themselves. I was struck by how some of these are cozy, almost cramped, and candlelit. It feels authentic and is very effective in that it allows camera shots that bring two faces on different planes into view, without some massive centerpiece between them. This allows the actors to convincingly observe each other as you know the characters in real-life would. Nice.
But thankfully, the story veers away from their discomfort to encompass Ann's good-naturedly warring in-laws, her own family's new social-climbing life in Bath, and a group trip to a seaside town to visit Wentworth's old brothers in arms, the married Captain Harvile and the despondent Captain Benwick (pronounced Bennick) whose betrothed has died while he was at war. As Ann gets to know Benwick and encourages him to "rally", and perhaps include a little more prose in his obsessive reading of poetry, she begins to rally somewhat herself, and in the midst of another modest temporary tragedy she shows that she is the smartest and most competent person in the room. She also catches the eye of an insinuating and handsome cousin who happens to be passing through. Watching Root's Anne slowly regain her mojo just by virtue of getting somewhere, anywhere, away from her family feels truthful and is one of the pleasures of this whole enterprise.
I will add as a sidelight that Austen's gifts for dialogue and romantic longing are at least equalled by her surgical insight into families.
All the acting is great. The special features section on the disk indicates that Root was chosen in part because she could blush. Although she's no knockout, there are scenes in which she just glows. A late scene with almost verbatim Austen dialogue of Ann and Captain Harvile, gently jousting over which gender is the more constant, is notable.
Back to our story, there are a half-dozen subplots, but all matters come to a head in Bath, and suffice it to say, they do not all get run over by a truck and die. The ending is gentle and cliche-free, well, except for the last couple shots. And that is that. On time and under budget. Highly recommended.