CAST: Dakota Johnson, Cosmo Jarvis, Henry Golding, Richard E. Grant, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Ben Bailey-Smith, Izuka Hoyle, Mia McKenna-Bruce, Nia Towle, Edward Bluemel, Lydia Rose Bewley, Yolanda Kettle
RUNNING TIME: 107 mins
BASICALLY…: Anne Elliot (Johnson) is given a second chance at love when she reunites with an old flame (Jarvis)…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Normally whenever a beloved book is adapted into a movie or television series, there are those that know the book inside and out who will harp on endlessly about the liberties taken with the transition from page to screen. However, in the case of Netflix’s new feature based on Jane Austen’s Persuasion, some of the write-ups have been absolutely brutal, with some well-respected critics handing it one-star reviews left and right, saying that it completely removes everything good about Austen’s final completed novel, and is nothing short of a travesty as a result.
As for myself, I am approaching this film having not read the book, because I feel that adaptations of mostly anything should be able to stand on their own without the weight of their source material holding it down, so I can’t possibly say how director Carrie Cracknell’s version of Persuasion stacks up against the Austen original like everyone else seems to be. Having said that, though, the movie isn’t very good – not exactly the one-star travesty that others seems to view it, but also nothing that anyone will remember in a month’s, or even a week’s, time.
The plot, as in the novel, follows a young woman named Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson), who some years prior was dissuaded against marrying her true love, sailor Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), due to his lowly status. When her vain family are forced to vacate their stately manor, Anne learns that its new tenants are relatives of Frederick, who is now a wealthy Captain in the British Navy, and senses an opportunity to rekindle her romance that had been cruelly taken away from her. However, in typical Jane Austen fashion, Anne must also deal with another potential suitor, her distant cousin William (Henry Golding) who is set to inherit her family’s fortunes, but of course her heart continues to pine for Frederick as her efforts continue to work against her.
It’s a little unfair to designate this version of Persuasion to the rom-com pile, especially since Austen herself practically invented (if not popularised) the genre to begin with, but director Cracknell has her adaptation go through most of the typical rom-com motions – boy meets girl, girl pines for boy, another boy comes in to woo girl, and so on – that it might as well have been written by Richard Curtis. The film hits practically every beat you could imagine, though in this case it’s hard to tell if it’s taking a number of liberties with this story, or if Austen’s book really does follow this structure to a tee (again, I’ve not read the book so I can’t possibly comment on that). Most viewers will probably watch this and think of so many other rom-coms that are livelier and, honestly, more entertaining than this one, for its dry sense of humour and meandering pace doesn’t get the casual viewer as invested in the soapy romance sub-plots as they probably ought to, while the simplistic dialogue does little to levitate the drama (even having not read the book, I can tell that this is probably not the type of sophisticated or witty writing that Austen herself was known for).
Talking of its droll humour, one would come to expect that sort of thing with a Jane Austen adaptation, but here it’s made so much more noticeable by the thumping addition of other comedic elements that do not fit into that (sense and) sensibility. In a device clearly lifted from Fleabag (though I have seen it done in other Austen adaptations, like the underappreciated 1999 version of Mansfield Park), Dakota Johnson’s Anne frequently breaks the fourth wall to deliver monologues and asides to the camera, which in theory could work as a means to deliver some of Austen’s iconic lines of prose, but in the actual film they’re often reserved for some smug dialogue that’s been designed to pander specifically towards Instagram-drunk millennials, with Johnson talking about “exes” and how someone is a clear “ten”. These frequent asides do become a little irritating after a while, especially as it slowly dawns on you that nothing she is saying is remotely interesting outside of a 140-character tweet or Instagram caption on a Bridgerton fan account, while other moments of slapstick feel wildly out of place with the refined tone it’s clearly aiming for.
The movie does at least have some fine performances to carry through the less interesting episodes (which, unfortunately, accounts for most of them), with fun turns by the likes of Richard E. Grant, Nikki Amuka-Bird and a scene-stealing Mia McKenna-Bruce as Anne’s self-centred sister. Alas, when it comes to the main trio, therein lies the rub; ropey English accent aside, Dakota Johnson does fine as the central Austen lead, and the ever-charismatic Henry Golding (seriously, can we just cast him as James Bond now and get it over with?) is a delight whenever he’s on-screen, but sadly the weak link is Cosmo Jarvis as the supposedly desirable romantic lead. Jarvis is a great actor, and has been truly excellent in other things, but here he is severely miscast, and it shows in that he struggles to have much chemistry with the people he’s acting opposite, including – and most crucially – Johnson, with whom his romantic scenes simply fall flat (though from her perspective, she’s probably relieved that at least he isn’t Jamie Dornan). His evident uncomfortableness in the part doesn’t make it the least bit believable that he’s not only a suitor worth pining after, but would still be one that somebody like Anne would still hold a candle for years after their initial coupling, which brings the whole dynamic to its weak knees.
I would bet good money that, had I actually read the original novel of Persuasion, I’d be just as frustrated at this adaptation than a lot of the other critics. However, since I haven’t, I can only be frustrated that I felt my time was somewhat wasted on this forgettable and slightly ill-conceived romantic-comedy that seems to be at war with itself; on the one hand, it clearly wants to do justice to the original book, but on the other you can practically hear the notes telling the filmmakers to make this more like Bridgerton, no matter what the cost. It all results in an empty pile of nothingness which, unless you’re a fan of the book and want to hate-watch out of curiosity, isn’t really worth your time.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Persuasion is a limp and unengaging adaptation of Jane Austen’s final completed novel, which follows the typical rom-com tropes to a tee with little romantic enthusiasm and misplaced comedy, despite the efforts of a mostly enjoyable cast.