Still of Dakota Johnson in Persuasion

Film Review: Persuasion

Film Reviews

Director: Carrie Cracknell

Streaming on Netflix 07.15

When it comes to reimagining a classic, there’s always a question of whether intense fan devotion will work for you or against you. Persuasion, the latest adaptation of Jane Austen‘s final novel, is likely to inspire plenty of love and hate.

The protagonist of Persuasion is Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson, Cha Cha Real Smooth), a charming woman in her late ’20s who has spent eight years trying to get over her one true love, Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis, Lady Macbeth). Anne’s family persuaded her to break off her engagement to the young sailor because he was below their social standing, and Anne has regretted it ever since. The family’s frivolous spending has brought hard times, and when Wentworth suddenly bursts back into Anne’s life, he’s now a highly decorated Captain who is being considered for an Admiralty. Wentworth’s also harboring a lot of conflicting feelings, and, at first, it appears that the ex-lovers can barely be comfortably in the same room together. As temperaments cool and attitudes warm, Anne is faced with the question of whether to put the past behind her or listen to her heart and believe in second chances.

Generally speaking, you don’t hear a lot of Austen purists describing Anne as “a bit of a Ferris Beuller type,” though esteemed stage director Carrie Cracknell has made the comparison unmistakable here. Johnson’s Anne breaks the fourth wall, talking directly to the audience, sharing musings, intimate stories and sly looks. Cracknell has given the entire tone of Persuasion a drastic makeover, taking one of Austen’s most thoughtful, melancholy novels and playing it as a lighthearted rom-com more in the vein of Emma. While extreme measures have been taken with Austen adaptations before, such as fully modernized versions like Clueless or Fire Island, those films made it clear what to expect from the word go. Persuasion, which has an attitude that seems to have been greatly influenced by recent revisionist period pieces such as Dickinson and Bridgerton, is likely to catch its audience much more off guard, and as such, they may have a harder time with the tonal liberties being taken here. 

Johnson is a delight as Anne, giving a magnetic and vivacious performance. She is helped by a lot of witty dialogue and Cracknell’s keen sense of comedic timing. Jarvis is a revelation as Wentworth, with a smoldering intensity to his gaze that could bore through walls. He’s so utterly convincing as a man carrying the weight of a broken heart that you want to jump through the screen and give him a hug. Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians) has a roguish charisma in an interesting, new take on the character of Anne’s new suitor, her cousin, William Elliot. Richard E. Grant and Mia McKenna-Bruce are a hoot as Anne’s father, Sir Walter, and her sister Mary, respectively. The screenplay by Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow is funny and inventive, if not as groundbreaking as I suspect the filmmakers like to think it is. Persuasion straddles the line between incorporating more progressive, modern ideas and self-conscious anachronisms, though it manages to mostly steer clear of eye-roll-inducing “someday things will be more equal” future-gazing dialogue, which can easily ruin a period story told through a modern lens. 

Not everything about the adaptation plays out smoothly, and the final section feels awkwardly rushed It got to a point where Persuasion felt a bit too self-conscious and forced.  Still, I found the film as a whole to be entertaining, though it must be noted that I’m far from a purist: I’m someone who enjoys a creative new spin on a classic, comfortable in the knowledge that the original is irreplaceable and nothing new can detract from it. It may be hard to persuade the most devoted Austen fans to give this one a fair chance, but if you can keep an open mind, it’s a pleasant use of a little less than two hours of screen time. –Patrick Gibbs

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