Persuasion (United States, 2022)

July 14, 2022
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Persuasion Poster

If you have read Persuasion or consider yourself a Jane Austen aficionado, this new Netflix-funded production hasn’t been made with you in mind. In fact, the more familiarity one has with Austen, the more likely the 2022 Persuasion is to be seen as an abomination. While retaining the broad outline of the novel’s plot points, it ignores pretty much everything that makes Persuasion unique and compelling among the author’s five completed novels. Screenwriters Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow (who ditch much of Austen’s text in favor of more modern-sounding dialogue), collaborating with British theater director Carrie Cracknell (making her movie feature debut), have followed the apparent mandate to apply the recent trends in Regency Romances (think: Bridgerton) and apply them to Persuasion.

It's certainly not impossible to remake a classic novel in its traditional period while applying a more modern sensibility to the proceedings. Armondo Iannucci achieved it with The Personal History of David Copperfield. Greta Gerwig did some interesting things with her 2019 reworking of Little Women. And Autumn de Wilde took on Austen’s Emma in a 2020 release whose distribution was interrupted by the pandemic. These three films have one thing in common: a degree of respect for the source material that informs the final result. That crucial ingredient is apparently absent from Persuasion. In her review for The Independent, Clarisse Loughery puts it this way: “At no point during Carrie Cracknell’s directorial debut do you ever get the sense that anyone’s actually read Persuasion.” Point taken, although to be fair to the director, she has stated (in a New York Times interview) that Persuasion is one of her favorite novels. But I wonder if anyone in the target audience will care because most of them probably haven’t read it.

The story beats are familiar and generally follow the narrative established by Austen. Seven years prior to the present time frame (which is around 1814), Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) and Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) were engaged to be married. After being persuaded that it wasn’t a good match, Anne broke off the engagement – an action that both she and Wentworth have regretted. In the interim, she has continued her spinsterhood (at age 27, she’s past the usual “marriageable” age) while he has gained fame and fortune fighting Napoleon. A coincidental meeting reunites them and, thereafter, they are frequently thrown together. The encounters are painful for them both and a sequence of misunderstandings seemingly undermine any hope of the engagement being revived, especially when Wentworth appears to become involved with Anne’s relation-by-marriage (to one of her sisters), Louisa Musgrove (Nia Towle), and Anne dallies with her cousin, William Elliot (Henry Golding).

Regardless of the filmmakers’ familiarity with Austen’s novel, Persuasion fundamentally misunderstands the character. This Anne has been forced into the mold of an Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) or an Emma Woodhouse (Emma) – sharp-tongued and prone to put-downs. The Anne of the novel, however, is a more somber and introspective woman – someone who has learned to accept her lot in life until her emotional balance is upset. In a choice that’s more distracting than effective, Cracknell often has Anne breaking the fourth wall by gazing into the camera and addressing the audience. The veil of melancholy that Austen draped over the character’s shoulders is nowhere to be found, except perhaps during brief, self-pitying soliloquies.

Persuasion’s approach to color-blind casting is confined to the supporting roles.  Anne’s “second mother,” Lady Russell is played by Nikki Amuka-Bird (who is dark-skinned) and Malaysian-born Henry Golding essays William Elliot. Both are fine in the roles, although the screenplay lessens William’s duplicity, thereby making him less overtly villainous. The most notable performer is Richard E. Grant, whose over-the-top portrayal of Sir Walter Elliot fits perfectly into the pantheon of Austen parental figures. The leads retain their lighter skin; both are miscast. Dakota Johnson’s sunny disposition might have worked in Pride and Prejudice or Emma but it’s woefully misplaced here. Even when her Anne is in a funk, we don’t believe it. (In a way, this is surprising because Johnson has shown range in almost everything where the number “Fifty” isn’t part of the title.) Cosmo Jarvis often seems to be trying too hard to be downbeat and lacks the gravitas one expects from Wentworth. He and Johnson also share little in the way of romantic chemistry.

Persuasion, written during Austen’s final years of life, is viewed by many critics as being her best-written, most insightful novel. It is markedly different from the lighter books she is best remembered for. The optimism has been replaced by an introspective perspective on a life that didn’t go as hoped. This quality shone through in the excellent 1995 adaptation (starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds) – it came out the same year as the definitive Pride and Prejudice mini-series. However, just as Joe Wright was able to put his own stamp on that based-on-a-classic movie in 2005, there’s no reason why Cracknell couldn’t have done the same thing here. Transforming Persuasion into something generic and pitching it to viewers seduced by the likes of Bridgerton and Mr. Malcolm’s List illustrates not only a lack of imagination but a betrayal of the source material.

Anyone who doesn’t know the difference between the 19th century author and the capital of Texas and who simply wants a by-the-numbers period-piece romantic comedy may find Persuasion to their taste. They’re welcome to it with its tiny pleasures. Thankfully, for those who want the real version, there are plenty of other places to experience it without the asides to the camera and contemporary idioms.

Persuasion (United States, 2022)

Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 2022-07-15
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: Drama/Romance
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.1:1