I have very slowly been catching up with my Austen adaptations. There have been two golden eras of Austen films in my lifetime, to date. First were the mid-90s, when the BBC did a bunch of prestige adaptations. This window also includes some great homages, like Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You. And then, of course, the mid ’00s saw a surge of Austenmania based on the wave of popularity from 2005’s Pride and Prejudice by Joe Wright (jumping the shark with 2009’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies book).
Could we be entering another period of Austen enthusiasm? 2022’s Persuasion marks the second notable Austen adaptation of the past couple years, along with Autumn de Wilde’s resplendent Emma. from 2020. I’d love to see a few more up-and-comers tackle the Austen canon before the decade is done, though I’d also love if they were a little bit better than this specific specimen.
This film, whose screenplay was adapted by Alice Victoria Winslow and Ronald Bass, transforms Anne Elliot into a fourth wall-breaking, Jim-from-The Office mugging, wine-swigging, cool aunt. It seems deeply inspired by the brilliant show Fleabag, and calls for a much quirkier and spunkier performance than Dakota Johnson brings.
I imagine they had Keira Knightley circa Pirates of the Caribbean on the mind as they wrote this (or perhaps Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag herself). Johnson instead carries a more melancholy, pensive presence, totally at odds with the writing decisions in the screenplay. Johnson’s demeanor better matches the character in the original Austen novel than her depiction here.
Even if Johnson was the perfect fit for the vision, the quirkification and fourth wall-busting monologues add very little to the story. It’s as if the adapters never got past the elevator pitch phase to do some nuts-and-bolts consideration of what benefits a postmodern twist might bring to the source. It turns out the answer is: not much! No deeper insight to Anne Elliot; no whimsical deconstruction of tropes; just a few camera smirks.
Here’ the thing, though: in spite of all of that hand-wringing as prelude, Johnson is still a ton of fun to watch, and she brings Persuasion to some tepid charms. She has an alluring, enigmatic charisma that keeps the film even-keeled and immensely watchable. If you’re going to have an actress playing a cutesy riff on a beloved literary character, Johnson is more than up for the challenge. Hell, she is overqualified.
Johnson isn’t the only lead who is miscast but unexpectedly effective: On the surface, Cosmo Jarvis’s performance as Captain Wentworth is a misfire, mealy-mouthed and rigid. He seems to think he’s in a traditional adaptation where a stiff upper lip (quite literally) is the proper approach; any hunkiness or looseness that might have livened up the role is missing. The script also does Jarvis and Johnson a bit dirty, never giving us enough shared screentime of the leads to properly feel the charge of their messy, unfinished romantic history.
In spite of it all, I found myself totally drawn in by their chemistry, almost inexplicably. I think it’s that both actors convey, by their sheer on-screen demeanor, the sense that they are feeling deep pools of emotion. Their gestures and glances tell a story more interesting than the version in the script.
The weakest part of the film is the production design, which is so underwhelming: The costumes go halfway towards a modern look, but not in a stylized way. The result is that all the women look like they bought a church dress at the mall. The interiors look like hotel lobbies: spacious and clean, but never regal or decadent.
The score is pretty dreadful, too; it’s a real snoozer when the movie’s tone is begging for something peppier and more Bridgerton-inspired.
Persuasion is certainly not a good film, but its flaws are deflected by the sterling source material and cast. My fondness for Johnson as the miscast lead carried it to the finish line. The supporting cast is strong, too, especially Mia McKenna-Bruce’s snarky take on Mary Musgrove, contrasting her tiny stature with the character’s big personality. So it’s a net thumbs down, but not a hostile one.
- Review Project: 2022: Year in Film