Persuasion tries and fails to hide its thoughtless adaptation instincts and baffling decision-making behind a deluge of modern stylistic flourishes and homages to superior films.
I really never thought I could hate an adaptation of Persuasion. But here we are. Austen’s final novel, Persuasion is the story of a second chance at love, and the revitalizing effect of finally taking control of your own life; it’s also a love story about two people (here, Dakota Johnson and Cosmo Jarvis as Anne and Wentworth) who mostly convey their emotions with intense silences, indirect gestures of affection, and little conversation. To an even greater extent than most Regency stories, restraint and repression are the name of the game, inherent to the characters and to their romance, and while it’s not exactly the most obviously cinematic of affairs, it’s nowhere near impossible. For director Carrie Cracknell, however, all this isn’t just a key feature of the story — it’s an obstacle to overcome. Throwing every modern gimmick at the wall to see what sticks, Cracknell’s Persuasion is a jumble of intentionally anachronistic dialogue, fourth-wall breaking affects, and attempts at cynical wit that seems to see its own source material as a problem to be solved rather than an adaptation to be lovingly and imaginatively massaged.
Despite a track record of magnetic performances, Cosmo Jarvis as Captain Frederick Wentworth offers less of a love interest here than the romantic equivalent of a boy band poster on a teen girl’s wall. We hear constantly of his virtues, of how captivating he is (including female characters expressing, wide-eyed, that he actually listens to women), but Jarvis is rarely even on screen long enough to stand a chance at proving it, resulting in a love interest who feels like little more than a blank canvas for various women to project their ideas onto. The chemistry between Jarvis and Johnson is near non-existent, and the agonizing tension of Austen’s pairing is deflated at every possible moment by Cracknell’s baffling narrative choices. Instead of following Austen’s lead and building the pair’s desperation for each other to a fever pitch, driven mad by not knowing how the other feels, let alone themselves, Cracknell practically has them engaging in regular check-ins, neutering anticipation before it has any chance to build. Even in Wentworth’s crucial moment of action, a letter he writes to Anne, Cracknell robs Jarvis of that final opportunity to convince us of his character’s love, instead allocating it to Johnson — it’s a choice that sidelines a worthy performer for no apparent reason and epitomizes just how thoughtless this adaptation of such a thoughtful novel is.
But even in the most steaming of shitshows, pockets of redemption can be found. Dakota Johnson’s performance is Persuasion‘s saving grace, and even if what she’s asked to convey is for the most part inanely stupid, she conveys such inanities well. Her performance is the only element of the film that feels even remotely dialed in to the spirit of Austen’s intent, capturing the “half-agony, half-hope” that animates the novel. But all of that promise is sabotaged by a script that has absolutely zero faith in Johnson’s ability: Austen’s subtlety and satire is steamrolled, and in its place, screenwriters Ronald Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow cobble together a script made up entirely of halfhearted attempts at (outdated) jokes and pseudo-feminist self-deprecation, presumably in the hope that audiences will hear buzzwords like “self-care” and “empath” and stump up half a chuckle at a reference to something they saw on Twitter a year ago.
This cribbing of its entire comedic sensibility from online meme culture exemplifies what might be the main artistic failure of Persuasion — even down to individual jokes and characterizations, the film seems terrified of breaking any new ground whatsoever. From an external and cursory glimpse, this might seem like an ignorant take — the film breaks the fourth wall, allows its female characters to be flawed and messy even in an uptight Regency setting, and gives its protagonist free rein to express her inner monologue… but does it really? Anne’s addresses to camera are less of an artistic choice than a safety net, as though Bass and Winslow don’t believe audiences capable of understanding anything more cerebral and nuanced than a character directly telling them how she is feeling at all times, and even by that measure, Anne is only permitted the barest level of actual complexity. Instead of Austen’s restrained but thoughtful heroine, this 2022 version of Anne Elliott is a snarky, certified girlboss who can’t get through the day without a bottle of wine and is oh-so-clumsy and adorably awkward. Johnson manages to realize some depth of character in Anne’s quieter moments, but on the whole, this Anne is a caricature of manic pixie dream girl nonsense and lowest-common-denominator pop-feminism.
But it’s not just the film’s portrayal of Anne that is borrowed from a mash of other films — the whole affair is a bungled patchwork of the last twenty years of popular period romances. The score is oddly reminiscent of Isobel Waller-Bridge’s work on Autumn de Wilde’s Emma., while even small things like a visual gag from Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield and the economic take on marriage articulated in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women are open enough as to be noticeable. Even Dakota Johnson’s voice, when she is tasked with any dialogue that is vaguely Austenian, sounds close to an impression of Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Bennett from Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice. Persuasion is clearly uninterested in faithful adaptation — which is absolutely fine on its own, just look at Andrew Ahn’s recent Fire Island — but there’s also no unique or genuinely imaginative take on the source material, only the vague notion of what works in a period adaptation and what works in a romantic-comedy, and the resulting ragbag of influences. All the film’s empty modern flourishes and homages to superior films can’t hide that Cracknell’s film has absolutely nothing to say about Austen’s novel. And so, fundamentally, there is no real reason for this film to exist.