Jane Austen on WXXI/PBS
"The one claim I shall make for my own sex is that we love longest, when all hope is gone."
— Anne Elliot in Persuasion
The new Jane Austen series on PBS/WXXI offers more than subtle acting, intelligent dialogue, and pretty English countryside. It also gives us the chance to consider the ways in which film composers create a particular mood within the framework of a single novel. Persuasion aired Sunday night with a minimalist, simple, and dreamy soundtrack by Martin Phipps. The main character is Anne Elliot (Sally Hawkins), who’s fated for spinsterhood at age 27. She’s forced to face her feelings of loss and regret when the man she once loved -- and still loves -- reappears. As the story progresses, notes fall slowly from the piano like rain on a pond. Drip, drip, drip. The composer’s sparse, George Winston-esque soundtrack suggests the way memories linger in the mind long after the object of one’s passion has vanished or disconnected.
In contrast, the soundtrack of Mansfield Park (airing January 27th) hails from another planet. The story is lighter, with young and clear-headed heroine Fanny Price (played by Billie Piper) moving into adulthood with no regrets, sound moral judgment, and ebullient spirits. John Keane’s jazzy and light-hearted score echoes the frivolity of Dixieland bands in the Old South. Fanny laughs, dances, and playfully chases children down the halls of the mansion while the music moves right with her, infectious and joyous.
I predict that Northanger Abby (airing this Sunday, January 20th), a story about young Catherine Morland and her feverish imagination, will feature a score that spools out in darker, Gothic tones and minor keys. It will be more Romantic, in the classical sense of the word. Austen’s Sense and Sensibility may also feature complex, murky music, reflecting the novel’s dynamic tension. But I haven’t seen these films yet. I’m only guessing.
If you’re a fan of Andrew Davies’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, (airing February 10, 17, and 24,) you’re acquainted with its well-matched, Mozartian score by Carl Davis. Like the story and its quirky characters, the music is effervescent, witty, and at times, comical. In the scene when Mr. Bingley rides his horse to propose to Jane Bennet, we see Bingley bouncing up and down to the sound of a clarinet braying like a donkey: this segues into a whoop of alarm from Mrs. Bennet. The music displays an affection for Austen’s characters which is quite pleasing.
In other cases, the soundtrack outshines the movie. The 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (starring Keira Knightly) misinterpreted the story altogether. But it’s pretty to watch, and the score by Dario Marianelli is exquisite.