Directed by: Carrie Cracknell
Distributed by: Netflix
Written by Anna Harrison
Book adaptations are tricky things—like all compromises, there will always be at least one unhappy customer, but if done well, they can coax out hidden subtleties and merge the best of both the literary and filmic mediums; done poorly, you get a film like Carrie Cracknell’s “Persuasion.” Cracknell and team, including writers Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow, attempt to update an older text for a newer audience, which in and of itself is nothing bad (and can often result in some good things, like the diverse cast of “Persuasion”), but they forget one crucial thing: Jane Austen remains popular because her sharp insights into society and gender remain timely, and any attempts to update her text fall flat because there can be nothing of substance added that isn’t already there.
It doesn’t help at all that Cracknell’s preparation seemingly involved watching “Fleabag,” the Joe Wright “Pride and Prejudice,” and Autumn de Wilde’s “Emma.” on repeat instead of actually reading the text her film is supposedly based on. She takes the fourth wall breaks and messy female behavior of “Fleabag,” the most surface-level feminism and hashtag-girlboss moments of “Pride and Prejudice,” and the self-awareness of “Emma.,” throws them all together in a pot, stirs this smorgasbord around, and labels the misshapen result “Persuasion”: The experience is rather like opening a box labeled “cake” only to find tilapia.
We open with a voiceover from Dakota Johnson’s Anne Elliot, who speedruns the audience through her failed relationship with Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), whom Anne would have married were she not persuaded out of the engagement eight years ago. Now Anne is “single and thriving,” a real phrase uttered by Dakota Johnson in this real movie. She likes to drink red wine and cry in the bath, and everything about this Anne Elliot seems designed to appeal to millennials and older Gen Z audiences, except the designer only has the most surface level knowledge about how to interact with anyone under the age of 40; her character is a random collection of un-witty witticisms, “not like other girls” moments, and wry glances which come together to form the approximation of an Austen heroine from someone who only has the most surface level knowledge about Austen heroines (seems to be a recurring theme).
The problem is that Anne Elliot is not like most Austen heroines—not that they are all the same—and “Persuasion” is not “Emma.” “Persuasion” is a melancholic book musing on past loves and growing old, and the woman at its center is restrained and proper but feels deeply. She does not, for example, get uncomfortable amidst silence between her well-to-do cousins and subsequently blurt out a dream about an octopus sucking her face, which would have been an egregious piece of writing for any character, let alone Anne. Johnson does what she can with what she has, but there are few hidden depths to whoever this Anne Elliot is supposed to be, and the result is an unremarkable performance in a less-than-remarkable movie. In fact, the only actors remotely memorable are Richard E. Grant as Anne’s narcissistic father and Mia McKenna-Bruce as her slightly less self-centered younger sister. (The less said about Jarvis’s Captain Wentworth, the better.)
It prompts the question: What is the point of calling this movie “Persuasion” if it completely ignores the careful characterization laid down by Austen and only gives a cursory nod to her class commentary? What is left of the original work except for the bare bones of a plot and character names? It would be one thing if the film had crackled with life and intelligence on its own, but nothing comes together as it should. The costumes are uninspiring, the characters dull with no chemistry, the performances forgettable, the editing odd, and the cinematography by and large unmemorable: “Persuasion” can’t stand as a film in its own right, let alone as an adaptation. By the time Wentworth utters those beautiful (but here, unearned) words of Austen’s—“You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope”—my soul, too, was pierced: I was just all agony.