Persuasion Review: Awkward Fleabag-style Jane Austen adaptation

Jane Austen completed the manuscript for Persuasion in 1816, a year before her death. But even then, more than 200 years ago, she anticipated the conversation Hollywood is having today, putting these words into the mouth of Captain Harville: “I don’t think I’ve ever opened a book in my life that wasn’t about the woman’s fickleness had to say. Songs and proverbs all speak of woman’s fickleness. But you may say these were all written by men.”

Anne Elliot—bright, heartbroken, and at risk of a lifelong virginity at the ripe old age of 28—of course agrees, not Harville’s argument that it’s woman’s nature (rather than man’s) to forget those who loved her before, but to the fact that “the pen was in her hands,” and thus literary history betrays a gender bias. Two centuries later, the world is still struggling to strike that balance, and no studio seems more committed to empowering women to control their narrative than Netflix.

While original works are welcome, Austen makes an obvious choice for female directors to adapt (certainly more so than Dangerous Liaisons, which is also getting an “unwittingly” contemporary makeover from the streamer this week). Persuasion is a good choice of material, but British stage director Carrie Cracknell did something odd with the book: she tried to modernize it, borrowing heavily from Fleabag (with its fourth-wall breaking gimmicks) and Emma . (in all its symmetrically framed Wes Anderson-inflicted cuteness) while casting a free-spirited, utterly liberated American star, Dakota Johnson, as Anne – all of which robs the novel of its core tension.

You see, Persuasion is an odd romance in that for contemporary audiences there is nothing that really separates the two lovers. At least not anymore. A few years ago, Wentworth – “a sailor of no rank or fortune,” played by the sturdy, handsome Cosmo Jarvis (“Lady Macbeth”) – proposed to Anne, and she accepted, but her aristocratic family frowned upon the match, and she became one persuaded to break the engagement. Jump forward to the present (Austen’s present, that is, from 1816) and the situation changes.

Anne’s shamelessly conceited father, Sir Walter (Richard E. Grant, a braggart braggart), must rent the family estate, Kellynch Hall, and reintroduce into her circle the man Anne’s heart still beats for – only that Wentworth is now an officer with enough Fortune is their hand to earn. Certain nuances of class and social standing still stand in their way, but few of the film’s Netflix viewers will appreciate such obstacles. (But will they favor modern flourishes, like the “playlist” of sheet music Wentworth created for them, or their labeling of younger sister Mary as a “total narcissist”?)

The problem for Cracknell’s purposes is that neither character is certain that the other still feels the love they once shared, so we wait the required 100 minutes for them to confess their feelings and move on with the marriage, which neatly connects all of Austen’s books. With this novel, however, she made it abundantly clear that English marriages in Georgian times were not about feelings; they were social contracts designed to prop up a family’s wealth and position. However, when emotion and benefit coincide, where is the conflict?

Screenwriters Alice Victoria Winslow and Ron Bass share credit (although only one is likely responsible for this choice) and transform their heroine into something very different from what Austen described – or from what previous film adaptations envisioned (she was made with Painful understatement played by Sally Hawkins). and Amanda Root in the 1995 and 2007 UK TV versions).

In Austen’s words, “Anne Elliot was a very pretty girl, but her prime was gone early.” She is now “faded and thin,” the most docile of Walter’s daughters, while Johnson seems to be at the peak of her powers (she rocks at the same time the MILF role in “Cha Cha Real Smooth” on Apple TV+). Nothing against the very gifted Johnson, but she’s not the right actress for the role and she’s been completely misguided.

Cracknell approaches the project with confidence and a clear (though clearly derived) vision. Her compositions are striking and sometimes impotently romantic, although she has an odd notion of Anne Elliot: she likes her wine and drinks a glassful of red wine; she carries a pet rabbit as a prop and croons dejectedly about sets with pastel walls and ugly oil paintings in ornate gold frames. In the novel, Anne’s sense of softly spoken propriety prolongs her misery, while here she is a sharp and unfiltered narrator, consistently delivering scathing judgments about her family. She regularly turns directly to the camera and gives the audience a guilty look, as if to say, “See what I mean?” or “Can you believe these people?”

And yet, despite this openly disobedient streak, she’s corseted by all the old-fashioned social conventions at play, including sitting idly by while 19-year-old sister-in-law Louisa (Nia Towle) openly flirts with Wentworth, and entertaining a competing proposition of the distant Relatives William Elliot (Henry Golding). The Anne we meet in this film would not shut up when things like this happened. So what is she waiting for? An apology from Wentworth? It was she who turned down his earlier offer. Maybe the mind can be persuaded to reject true love like Anne was all those years ago, but in the end (to quote Emily Dickinson, not Austen) the heart wants what it wants.

Persuasion is now streaming on Netflix. Persuasion Review: Awkward Fleabag-style Jane Austen adaptation

Charles Jones

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