Adapted from Jane Austen’s last completed novel, Persuasion stars Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot
In Persuasion, Anne Elliot, played by Dakota Johnson, is the second daughter in a wealthy family who was in love with and engaged to Wentworth, a young Naval officer. However, his lack of wealth and rank meant that her family took against the match and she was ‘persuaded’ against marrying him. Eight years later, Anne still regrets her decision and when Wentworth reappears in her social circle, she is forced to interact with her former love in a number of increasingly awkward social situations.
Persuasion is commonly thought of as being Austen’s most mature work. If that is the case, very little of that maturity has filtered down into this most recent adaptation. The film has all the pomp you would expect from a regency-era period drama, but it has a cool irreverence that Austen herself would have been proud of.
Following the same practices as Bridgerton & David Copperfield, the film has taken a colour-blind casting approach, which is still enjoyable and refreshing. People who complain about the historical accuracy of such practises need to remember that even the books themselves are not historically accurate, with the authors themselves censoring place names and cleaning up the language to suit the morals of a proto-Victorian readership. Better to think of this as simply a representation of the past, rather than the definitive version. Better yet, don’t think about the issue at all.
Dakota Johnson plays the lead role and you would have to be particularly hard-hearted not to be charmed by the character. In essence, Johnson’s Anne Elliot is what you would get if you plonked Fleabag into the nineteenth-century gentry and let her get on with it. There’s also a touch of Bridget Jones to the character, with the most awkward things happening to her at the most inopportune time. But it is an endearing performance and is a welcome watch for people still looking to overwrite the image of Johnson in 50 Shades from their minds.
Cosmo Jarvis, on the other hand, does his best but doesn’t quite stick the landing in this role. It does make you realise just how hard it is being a leading man in this type of film, trying to convey longing and hurt, wrapped under several layers of civility. Jarvis definitely conveys that sense of unremitting yearning, but not easily. Quite often he wears an expression that looks like he’s been accidentally spiked with horse tranquiliser.
Henry Golding is another actor who doesn’t quite seem to shine in this piece. He somehow doesn’t seem suited to the period costume, with his face squashed between the stiff collars and top hats. Taking someone like Golding and making him look anything short of weaponised handsome is quite an accomplishment, but probably not what the producers were going for. His rakish Mr Elliot is also mercilessly short on redeeming features, which is a shame because though the film sets it up for us to think so, no viewer would for a second think Anne is likely to end up with him unless this was a Thomas Hardy novel.
The stand-out performance from the supporting cast is without a doubt Mia McKenna Bruce as Anne’s self-involved sister, Mary. Mary’s line; “I need a holiday, and I need you with me on that holiday, to have someone to talk at when the others stop feeling obligated” is easily one of the funniest bits of the film. Richard E. Grant is, as always, brilliant and it would be pure foolishness to ever suggest otherwise. He’s clearly having a lot of fun as Sir Walter Elliot, Anne’s father, and it’s fun to watch him enjoy himself.
This film marks Carrie Cracknell’s cinematic debut as director. Already an accomplished director in the world of British theatre, Cracknell directed Ibsen’s A Doll’s House back in 2012, so she’s clearly got form when it comes to taking classic texts and sprinkling them with modern idioms and tropes. In fact, many of the clichés in the film could easily be found in a 90s romcom. Hopefully Cracknell won’t be afraid to push the boat out more on her next film.
It would be fair to say that Persuasion doesn’t always handle the tonal shifts very easily. We spend so much time watching the winking, smirking and knowing looks to the camera that when we see Anne experiencing an actual, heartfelt emotion, it’s hard to get drawn in. It might not necessarily be a good film, but it’s certainly an enjoyable one. It would pair well with the 2020 version of Emma for an evening of period rom-com silliness.
Netflix’s Persuasion may not be accurate in a lot of ways, but honestly, who cares? There is no shortage of adaptations of the novel that are probably more accurate, and no doubt, stuffier as a result. This version is in keeping with the spirit if not the letter of Austen and hopefully might create a few more Jane Austen fans, eager to learn more for themselves.