“It’s a 10,” the leading lady enthuses to an older woman about a young man she loves in this latest screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s latest novel – and if that line doesn’t not throw you for at least a small loop, there are other powerfully anachronistic ingredients of this new Persuasion it might well strike Austen fans, among others, as more than a little unconvincing. Breaking up and eradicating period niceties and replacing them with more modern attitudes and phraseology seems to be the central agenda of eminent British theater director Carrie Cracknell in her feature debut, and though it is easy to resist to some of the cheap modern dialogue that unfolds through the adaptation of old pro Ron Bass and writer-actress Alice Victoria Winslow, it also shouldn’t be impossible to agree that since we already have the Roger Michell’s outstanding 1995 film adaptation, a cheeky reworking might also be welcome, at least for a short stint.
This Netflix movie follows in the recent footsteps of Julia Quinn’s eight massive hits Bridgerton books published between 2000 and 2006. These became the basis for the streamer’s wildly popular 2020 TV series, which reset the rules of British period melodrama by casting actors of different hues in usually white roles. Along the same lines, new Austen projects were followed by the Regency ensemble Mr. Malcolm’s Lista very loose adaptation of Pride and Prejudicea book that further loosely inspired Hulu’s current gay attraction fire island. This Persuasion similarly suggests that shaking up the genre with ahistorical moves in casting and dialogue, as well as confidential, fourth-wall-breaking remarks, doesn’t have to distract from the melodramatic fun and can even subvert it at times. For now, however, Merchant Ivory adaptations of venerable old titles can only be seen, albeit respectfully, in the rearview mirror.
“I almost got married once,” Anne Elliott (a spirited and persuasive Dakota Johnson) admits wistfully, adding self-deprecatingly that at the “advanced” age of 27, “I’m waiting to fall in love”. In other quickly leaked confidences, she reveals that Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) and his mother are the only people who have ever understood her, but that Wentworth – the “10” in question – “is a ship that has sailed” , literally, it turns out he’s been in the Navy ever since.
Obviously once rather well-to-do, what remains of the Elliott family lives in Kellynch Hall, which is now beyond their means. It’s a situation that the extremely vain head of the family, Sir Walter (the always welcome Richard E. Grant), apparently intends to do nothing about; “What good is something if you have to earn it?” he complains dismissively. This being Austen, rarely half a minute passes without some lively banter and repartee, as Anne laments her current position in life with wit and without self-pity. But have you ever imagined that, on a country walk in company, a character from Jane Austen would abruptly announce her sudden desperate need to relieve herself by the side of the road? Whether that represents progress or not will be for history to decide.
So, indeed, times have changed in how old England is to be portrayed in film. But however chafing one might be at some of the liberties taken, this adaptation is so fundamentally alive and playful that it would seem rude to complain too powerfully; many great authors have endured far worse at the hands of less talented writers and directors who took their task very seriously, so maybe it’s not such a terrible literary offense for filmmakers to have a little irreverent fun with Austen rather than maintaining the absolute and straight-faced fidelity.
Much of the drama is whether Anne will ever be able to fall in love again or whether she may have already missed her chance (Austen, we recall, never married, but was briefly engaged at 27) . As fate, or Austen, would have it, Wentworth’s older sister Elizabeth (Yolanda Kettle) is currently ensconced at Kellynch Hall, which means that for better or worse, the underlying feelings and the possibilities of rekindling romance will be undeniable. Then there’s Anne’s self-dramatized younger sister, Mary Musgrove (Mia McKenna-Bruce) and Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird), who was the one who convinced Anne not to marry Frederick in the first place. In his sporadic appearances, Jarvis no doubt cuts an extremely handsome figure, but he doesn’t have much to do, so it’s impossible to gauge his screen potential from this company.
You can practically hear director Cracknell cracking the whip at the cast to keep up, as there’s hardly a moment of relaxation to be found in this propulsive, albeit somewhat scattered and sometimes misguided entertainment. At the very least, there’s the constant welcome presence of Johnson, who gallantly soldiers through the inspired and sometimes misguided aspects of this production and keeps it more or less on track. It is an unfaithful pleasure.