While it took me a while to come around I’ve really grown to love Jane Austin. 2020’s Emma. was a favorite of mine, turning the comedy of manners into a twee and fluffy thing that worked wonders. Now we’ve got the opportunity to see one of Austin’s more melancholic works adapted. Carrie Cracknell, most known for her work as the artistic director at Gate Theatre in London, has stepped behind the camera instead of the curtain to bring us something different. Her adaptation of Austin’s Persuasion dropped on Netflix over the weekend and is confounding, charming, heartfelt, and sort of messy despite its earnestness (and maybe because of it).
Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) is sick of her family. Her father, Sir Walter Elliot (Richard E. Grant as a perfectly aged ham), is a vain prick that has spent his entire fortune on “things.” Her elder sister, Elizabeth (Yolanda Kettle), is perfectly content to live her father’s lifestyle while she waits for a man, and her younger sister, Mary (Mia Mckenna-Bruce), wastes away in narcissism and married boredom. Eight years prior Anne was convinced to give up the love of her life, Captain Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), due to his status as a poor naval officer. He’s now rich, handsome, lonely, and depressed, so naturally, he’s out on the hunt for a wife. Anne will have to navigate his cryptic feelings, her own, the arousal of every other eligible female in the area, and a potential new suitor William Elliot (Henry Golding) as she tries to untangle the situation.
Many have taken to the internet battlefield to rail against the anachronistic, modern take on Austin’s novel. I found it quite charming; taking the piss out of some of the sillier memetic phrases we associate with modern dating instead of drenching it with sincerity. Johnson is given a chance to do what she so rarely does – be funny. We’re used to her as something more dramatic, whether it be Anastasia Steele or a woman on the run in Bad Times at the El Royale. I appreciate when she’s given a chance to let her charm eke away at the audience for once, and it pairs well with the modernization of the material. What makes it frustrating is her pairing with Cosmo Jarvis, who doesn’t do much to make Captain Wentworth all that much to be worked up over. Handsome, sure, but wooden and awkward. For a romance, the film doesn’t seem much interested in this pairing so much as it is in every other.
This is fine by me, as Johnson’s best onscreen moments are with Golding and McKenna-Bruce. Golding has chosen to play his role as “conniving and horny,” which winds up working well and gives off a spark with Johnson that’s much appreciated by the time he arrives an hour into the film. McKenna-Bruce needs more to do onscreen, as her bitchy-yet-hilarious sister to Anne deftly moves from obnoxious to uproarious and back again with little-to-no effort. These two leap off of the screen with life and their time onscreen to bounce off of other characters really fills in the gaps that are left wanting by the likes of Jarvis.
There’s little point in being precious with adaptation, so I’m glad that Cracknell and crew have taken a chance with this one. While it wound up flawed, I think more swings like this could be a good way to bring back a style of filmmaking that’s long gone from this world. Romanticism doesn’t get much time onscreen anymore, and films like this go a long way toward representing why we need it back. While Austin puritans are already up in arms I’m excited to see something like this, even if it’s imperfect, for the exact reasons it’s pissing them off.
Persuasion is currently streaming on Netflix.