A Jane Austen adaptation for the Kissing Booth crowd (although everyone involved would like to believe they’re pulling a Fleabag here) Netflix’s Persuasion basically begs Dakota Johnson and her twinkling smile to do all the heavy lifting, while the film’s anachronistic tone wobbles like the town drunkard after a post-wedding ball.
Johnson plays Anne Elliot, a particularly regretful Austen heroine still simping over her ‘ex’, a dashing seaman named Frederick Wentworth. At the insistence of her friends nearly a decade ago, Anne had rejected Frederick as a potential groom purely on the grounds that he wasn’t wealthy enough. But now, she lives with her status-obsessed father and spends most of her time wondering how she could have been so stupid.
Frederick, a representation of not just the self-made English gents who flourished in the 19th Century but also of the modern millennial man, has now worked his way up to the rank of Captain. He will most likely become an Admiral one day. But all Anne can do is kick herself as she obsesses over relics of their failed relationship — a lock of his hair, a ‘playlist’ that he once made for her, and even newspaper clippings of his professional success. But when Frederick returns from his naval adventures some years later, Anne’s simmering feelings bubble up to the surface.
The gimmick here, of course, is that director Carrie Cracknell has infused in Austen’s mannered story a contemporary edge. Like Hailee Steinfeld’s Emily Dickinson from the terrific Apple show of the same name (and even Kirsten Dunst’s Marie Antoinette from Sophia Coppola’s punk-rock period picture), Anne frequently breaks the fourth wall as she makes glib observations about her besties and extended family. The dialogue, at least at first glance, sounds archaic, but there’s something about the delivery that makes you lean in for a closer listen.
When Anne learns about a sailor colleague of Frederick’s who is ‘consumed by sorrow’, she blurts out, “Home from Troy and there’s another man in his bed?” She checks herself, and apologises, “Sorry, Agamemnon joke.” And then, in a different scene, one young woman describes local beauty standards like this: “If you’re a five in London you’ll be a 10 in Bath.” You get the idea.
It’s an approach that works more often than not, thanks mostly to Johnson’s radiant performance. She’s so dialled in here, elegantly switching between the wry humour and the heartfelt melodrama. Sometimes, she sneaks in glances at the camera that are virtually indiscernible. But Persuasion, as a whole, isn’t a subtle movie.
“That’s enough poetry; you know how much I detest metaphor,” one of Anne’s sisters snaps at her in one scene. And this, pretty much, is the sentiment that this film lives and dies by. Characters tend to verbalise their emotions instead of stewing in silence — it’s no coincidence that Anne, as portrayed here, is also a lot like Elliot Page’s Juno. With little idea of how to proceed with Frederick now that he’s back in town, she spends her days tagging along with her squad at parties and leisurely strolls in the park, third-wheeling them into submission. But the entire time, she can’t get her mind off him. Even when distraction in the form of Henry Golding pops in.
It’s mildly off-putting to see a young woman dedicate her entire existence to a man like this, especially considering how determined the movie is to tap into the ‘yaas kween’ style of storytelling perfected by Broad City. But again, it’s an easy leap of faith to take; the source novel was, after all, published in 1817. There is, however, a nagging sense of frustration at why Cracknell and her writers — Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow — were so hesitant about revamping characters in a more significant manner, when they appear to have shown zero hesitation in rewriting what those characters are saying.
But this is Johnson’s moment, even if the ‘moment’ has stretched out over several months. As with her last two films — The Lost Daughter and Cha Cha Real Smooth — she is the standout performer among a truly talented pool of actors. To think that I hadn’t even mentioned that this movie also features Richard E Grant in a scene-stealing supporting role. But no review of Persuasion will be complete without a shoutout to Cosmo Jarvis, who has always been so good at playing the strong and silent types. Frederick, like Jarvis’ characters in Lady Macbeth and Calm with Horses, is a man of few words. But he gets a terrific scene midway through the film, in which he confesses to Anne that his resentment at being dumped by her blinded him, but ultimately made him a better man.
It’s keenly observed moments like this that make you overlook some of the film’s problems. This isn’t the kind of movie that will work for everybody, least of all the crowd whose eyes it is directly being aimed at. But Johnson’s stans will tune in, and who knows, maybe with a little… persuasion, it might attract a nice little niche audience for itself.
Director – Carrie Cracknell
Cast – Dakota Johnson, Cosmo Jarvis, Henry Golding, Richard E Grant
Rating – 3.5/5