Review: Persuasion



Not convinced.

In Regency England, Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) enjoys a brief love affair with Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) but an engagement between the two was broken when Anne was persuaded to give up the penniless sailor without better prospect. Seven years later Anne remains unattached and wistful about that time, when Wentworth, now a famed and rich officer in the Navy, suddenly arrives back in her life again.

Do you like Bridgerton? You know, the Netflix show nominally set in early 19th century England but a version of which that bears little similarity to the real one, what with all the modern music, POC in prominent positions and copious nods to 2022? Well the produces of this version of Persuasion, also streaming via Netflix, are certainly hoping that you are a fan of Bridgerton. It’s their effort to Bridgerton-up Jane Austen by turning one of her most intimately emotional novels into a laugh-a-minute rom-com and while this isn’t an entirely unworthy goal, the execution of it in this adaptation is so slipshod that it can’t be said that it really works all that well. Bridgerton it is not.

Johnson does what she can with the lead character, giving a quiet, attractive presence to Anne, but there is only so much she can do. She carries herself with a reserved self-confident smirk throughout, all the better to be set-up for sometimes literal pratfalls’, and the effect makes you think more of Jim from The Office than anything else. In attempting to update Anne’s frequently heart-breaking internal monologues into an outward dialogue with the fourth wall (Fleabag is a clear inspiration in that regard) where modern parlance is frequently used to overwrite Austen’s writing, things err significantly: “Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was a perpetual estrangement,” becomes “Now we’re strangers. No, worse than strangers. We’re exes” in one of the most striking examples.

I can understand why the writers wanted to do this, but in attempting to make the material more accessible and relevant they rip the heart out of it: we don’t need to see Anne fondling a gift of sheet music and explaining that it is Wentworth’s “playlist” for her, anymore than we need a character designed to be insufferable going on about “practising self-care” (way to take a shot at mental illness everyone!). It would perhaps work better if Persuasion was set in the modern day, ala what Clueless did for Emma., but putting lines like “A 5 in London is a 10 in Bath!” into the mouths of Regency women, when the Regency in question isn’t the fantasy world of Bridgerton, seems like a vain attempt to possess cake and consume it too. Seeing Anne lounge in a bath, drink copious amounts of wine and just do and say lots of embarrassing things are the kinds of beats that showcase Persuasion as trying to be a 90s-era rom-com, but they just don’t work here. 2020’s Emma. did a much better job of subtly updating the material while retaining the original setting.

Jarvis, playing a radically different role to that which he did in Calm With Horses, gets on a bit better, mostly because he is required to be a stony-faced presence most of the time, and his dialogue, right down to the famous letter at the conclusion, is mostly kept intact. There’s undoubtedly an effort to make him into a Mr Darcy by any other name – a not uncommon issue with modern adaptations of Austen, with the aforementioned Emma. also having this problem – but he serves his purpose in this story, as a straight man to Johnson’s somewhat more wacky foil, fine. Indeed I would go so far as to say that Persuasion is at its best when the supporting cast are taking up most of the frame, and not the central pair: Mia McKenna-Bruce is fun as Anne’s hypochondriac sister, Nikki Amuka-Bird adds some needed gravitas as Lady Russell and Henry Goulding is superb as the kind-of villain of the piece, Mr Elliott (I say “kind of” because the film, for whatever reason, actually cuts out the portions of the novel where Mr Elliott is portrayed as an outright villain). Even Richard E. Grant makes the most of his small number of scenes, playing Anne’s deludedly vain father in just the right way for the rom-com feel the production is going for. But they are all just the sideshow: when the main course doesn’t work, the dinner can’t be salvaged.

If there is one thing that actually does redeem Persuasion, it’s the production details of cinematography and score. Carrie Cracknell work behind the camera with Joe Anderson makes the film look very appealing, whether it is the lush woods where Anne goes for walks with her sisters, or the more sombre, and yet very affecting, dullness of Bath. Candlelight is used to good effect in night-time scenes, and Anne’s flashbacks are framed well to capture that required sense of melancholy. Stuart Earl’s score is actually the strongest part of the whole experience, a quiet, piano driven accompaniment that always adds something to the scenes that it plays over, even if at times it sounds more like a tribute to period piece scores of old. Birdy pops up with a song, “Quietly Yours”, at the conclusion that might actually get you engaged in what is happening on the screen.

While I am not intimately familiar with Persuasion – the novel, that is – I am given to understand that it is a story replete with a sense of restraint: one of its main ideas is the thought of buried grief and regret not finding an avenue in outward expression. This filmed adaptation carries with it none of the same restraint, preferring instead to deliver something bolder and brasher, but altogether inferior. The creators of this Persuasion just seem to have no confidence in the relevance of Austen’s words in 2022, and so attempt to wrap them until their film feels like it could have been written by a TikTok influencer. Persuasion wants to be Clueless. It embodies the word certainly, but not the film. Not recommended.

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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