Synopsis – Eight years after Anne Elliot was persuaded not to marry a dashing man of humble origins, they meet again. Will she seize her second chance at true love?
My Take – Irrespective of her career choices, I can attest to the fact that I can watch Dakota Johnson in anything, anytime and forever. The gorgeous ‘Fifty Shades’ star has a certain allure and charm that always manages to keep me glued to the screen, while her surroundings completely blur out of focus. Probably, a major reason why I decided to check out this Netflix original, a Jane Austen adaption, which was cleared made to double down on the success of their historical-romance series, Bridgerton, and has been mostly panned since its release by fans and critics alike.
While I have never read any of Austen’s novels and only briefly run through their Wiki plot summaries, I have watched a fair share of adaptations, and do tend to enjoy them. And understand why author Jane Austen’s classic 1817 work, which was released six months after her death, has perhaps the most ardent fan base. Yes, Pride and Prejudice is more popular and with most adaptions, but the story of Anne Elliot and her second chance at love with Captain Frederick Wentworth still inspires rapturous devotion from readers over two centuries later.
However here, director Carrie Cracknell and screenwriters Ronald Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow not merely adapt the story, but modernize the use of phrases, cast cross culturally and clearly inspired by Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s award winning series, Fleabag, transform their lead heroine into unabashedly charming spinster who constantly shares her inner thoughts straight to the camera. A move which has undoubtedly left Austen fans and critics infuriated and baffled.
But if you can set that aside, I understand it is a mighty struggle if you love Austen, and let Dakota Johnson’s charm wash over you, then the film actually works decently as an anachronistic period romantic comedy. Though the original novel is known to be an earnest, heartfelt and melancholic tale, the film is mostly humorous and lighthearted, fun and hilarious in an awkward way. And if you have tempered expectations, it might work well for you.
Personally, I felt it does what it sets out to do, be a relaxing, beautiful to look at fun flick which can pull you out of a bad day. But if you are looking for a pure Austin adaption, I suggest you look somewhere else.
The story follows Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson), the middle daughter of a self-important vain and silly man, Sir Walter Elliot (Richard E. Grant), who has run the family fortune into the ground. A spinster at the grand old age of 27 and therefore confined to the edges of society, Anne is the only one in her family with any intelligence or common sense yet is treated as inconsequential by her father and sisters, Elizabeth (Yolanda Kettle) and Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce) and has resigned to devoting her life to caring for her sisters and her sister’s children.
Eight Years ago, Anne was madly in love with a naval officer, Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), but was persuaded by her mentor, Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird), to leave him, as he had no fortune or rank to recommend him.
But now, he is a Captain, a bona-fide war hero and wealthy, in fact, Frederick’s brother-in-law, an admiral, has rented Anne’s ancestral home, because the Elliot family can no longer afford it. Circumstances further conspire to make him a guest at her sister’s home while Anne is staying there too. Clearly she is still in love with him, but Frederick hasn’t forgotten her rejection. Adding further complications in their lives, is the arrival of Anne’s distant cousin, Mr. William Elliot (Henry Golding), a very wealthy widower, who makes himself clear about being Frederick’s rival for her heart.
For a film with a run time of 109 minutes, it has a whole lot going on from broken bones and concussions, to financial hardships, changes of locale, various stages of courtship, and crossed signals. For Austen purists, this adaption only gives up the goods when it comes to the English locations and the lovely costume design. Nevertheless, the new take on Anne Elliot works in some ways.
She is not the demure, quivering and stifled introvert that Austen fans would recognize from the novel, the film’s Anne is a rom-com mainstay, the manic pixie dream girl, an ostensibly smart and capable woman whose extreme charm ensures she’s completely non-threatening. For example, the scene when Frederick makes his reappearance, we see Anne into an impersonation with jam on her face and a basket on her head. Throughout the film, she hilariously embarrasses herself, trips over, makes uncomfortable dinner party chat and snipes about her self-absorbed family.
Yes, the approach is Fleabag inspired, as Anne explains things with dramatic tantrums, flirtatious winks, wry quips, and gives us backstories, in all the fun and clever ways Waller-Bridge made us feel like her confidante. Sure, while I admit that an Anne Elliot who cheekily glances at the camera whenever she’s annoyed at her irritating sister Mary feels a little out of character, but this version of her is far more hilarious, independent and fun-loving than the version in Austen’s novel.
Not only is the film, a lot more comedic than the book, but it also carries a few more modern views. There is, in fact, a great balance here between humor and heartbreak. While the famous letter scene and the final kiss didn’t exactly wow me, I found the whole experience fun and hilarious in an awkward way.
Most of the credit here has to be given to Dakota Johnson, who carries the whole film just with her facial expressions, always being there on the joke with the viewer. Here, Johnson is charming, likable, and hardly needs to drink wine, speak directly to us, or use modern terminology and trip over her words and feet to be such. She is able to convey the exquisite agony of seeing the one you love in the arms of someone else with a single look. Cosmo Jarvis is a fantastic and has convincing puppy eyes through we can see how he is still deeply wounded by her past rejection.
Nikki Amuka-Bird and Henry Golding are complete scene stealers, but unfortunately they appear only for a short period of time onscreen. In supporting roles, Richard E. Grant, Mia McKenna-Bruce, Izuka Hoyle, Ben Bailey, Nia Towle and Yolanda Kettle are good. On the whole, ‘Persuasion’ is a hilarious and decently stylish adaptation anchored by a truly compelling Dakota Johnson, not meant for Austen fans.
Directed – Carrie Cracknell
Rated – PG
Run Time – 109 minutes