Jane Austen had matured from this when she wrote her last completed novel, Persuasion. Nearing her forties, she may have seen the world of aristocracy, landed nobility, and strategic marriage a little differently than she had as a young woman. To this end, Persuasion turns a beady eye on the pretensions and restrictions of England’s mannered climates and nudges its heroine, Anne Elliot, toward the true passion of her life, the social station be damned.
The new film adaptation of Persuasion (Netflix, July 15) tries to modernize things even further. Realized by Carrie Cracker with a scenario Ronald Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow, it weaves today’s vernacular with the twists and turns of Austen’s book salon plot, weaving through its romantic plot with a contemporary sensibility. Or at least an attempt.
Cracknell is a phenomenon of British theatre, one of his most notable productions being a contemporary riff on Ibsen A doll’s house. I haven’t seen this show, but nonetheless his hiring here – his first film – makes sense in this context. It’s a Persuasion meant, I imagine, to echo Bridgerton, a big juicy success for the streamer who puts his characters in old costumes and customs punctuated with nods to the present. Still PersuasionThe effort of turns out to be less than charming.
The movie looks nice, at least. Cracknell and cinematographer Joe Anderson stage it in soft hues of blue, green and brown. Persuasion has a majestic polish, gliding over rocky shores to the sea and through tastefully appointed chambers in pursuit of Anne’s happiness.
But this visual refinement only further underscores the film’s flimsy storyline, making it even more out of tune. It’s a Persuasion in which Anne and her family discuss a “5 in London” being equivalent to a “10 in Bath”, in terms of appearance. Anne mentions a reading list made for her by a despised lover, Navy man Frederick Wentworth, then produces a stack of sheet music. To find? Wentworth is repeatedly referred to as Anne’s “ex”.
It’s not just these pesky little anachronisms that plague the project, though. More detrimental, it Persuasion moves to a light-hearted clip, presenting Anne’s sadness and dissatisfaction more like petulant laments of late adolescence than a meaningful, weighty buildup of life’s regrets. It’s a terrifically dazzling and sometimes ungenerous portrayal of a beloved heroine, confusing sassy direct address with actual character detail. Various other characters tell Anne who she is on occasion or talk about her when they don’t know she’s listening. But we don’t see much of what they describe manifesting in Anne herself.
It’s not really the fault of the actress who plays her, dakota johnson. She’s adept at the kind of rosy melancholy required for the role, and she flirts well when Anne yearns to reframe her relationship with Wentworth – whom she rejected years before because of his low social status, a decision she was brought by listening to the blind advice of those close to her. (But also, of course, guided by her own pride, her own prejudice.) Johnson does her best to honor the spirit of a character that the script so constantly hones.
She has a lot of chemistry with Cosmo Jarvis, who plays Wentworth — now a respected naval officer on the rise — with a warmth and sensitivity that shines just beneath his rigid exterior of propriety. Wentworth is still hurt and angry at Anne’s rejection. But he is not vindictive. It’s basically the story of two honest people learning to let go of past mistakes and the inducements of social demand, to let go together.
Although I wish their ultimate reunion came with more grandeur than in this blustery film. An Austen adaptation doesn’t need to be laden with pathos for a viewer to feel something at the end. But there should be a sense of genuine, even hard-earned achievement, built with gradual, thoughtful turns and precise character development. This Persuasion is too concerned about being stuffy or boring to allow this slow, careful growth.
The film’s youth-level pose often feels rather condescending, the result of a poor assumption about young audiences’ ability to understand or connect with something that isn’t spoon-fed to them in brilliant style and appropriately. branch. packaging. I would bet if that Persuasion– same cast, same director, different script – were presented more simply, it would still find its desired legion of fans, those willing to do the work of locating the story’s enduring relevance on their own. Persuasion don’t trust this process, even though it is a process that has worked quite reliably for centuries.
Which perhaps says something about Netflix or the culture of fast fashion memes of our time. Or is it just a low-key movie that tries something that doesn’t work. In the spirit of Persuasion, I hope it’s the last, and that a slight appreciation of this film – which ignites a thirst for more – will send people looking for other, better and less cynical adaptations of Austen’s work. Perhaps this film will serve its own useful purpose, then, as a sort of gateway, leading viewers down a path that, at a few bends in the road, will lead to true fulfillment.