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‘Persuasion’ an inconsistent, still entertaining Austen adaptation

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As a rule, I do my best not to let the thoughts of other unduly impact my opinions about a film. That isn’t to say I’m above being influenced – we’re all subject to some extent to the constant firehose stream of hot takes, whether we want to be or not – but I try to keep my own counsel as much as possible.

Generally, my feelings about movies more or less line up with those of my peers – good, bad or indifferent – so it’s always fun when I wind up on the take less traveled.

This brings us to “Persuasion,” the new Netflix adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. Directed by Carrie Cracknell from a script adapted by Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow, it is an attempt to infuse the story with a bit of a modern sensibility. Now, I’ll concede that said attempt isn’t a wholly successful one, but I also found that, for me, it worked more often than it didn’t. It’s an opinion that leaves me very much in the minority.

But while there are plenty of issues at play here – and I’m certainly not going to go so far as to call this a great movie (or even a particularly good one) – I can’t deny that I was engaged by the effort and found some things to enjoy. Sure, it’s gimmicky and a bit of a mishmash in terms of tone and aesthetic, and yet … I enjoyed myself.

Your mileage may (and likely will) vary.

We open in the home of the Elliots. It is here that we meet Anne (Dakota Johnson), a spinster of sorts who has never gotten over the end of her relationship with Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), a young sailor with whom she was madly in love. However, at the urging of her family and her late mother’s best friend Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird), she broke it off – they believed Wentworth to be an unsuitable match.

Now, eight years later, she still lives in the family home with her self-involved father Sir Walter (Richard Grant) and sister Elizabeth (Yolanda Kettle). Due to mounting debt, the Elliots are forced to leave said home and take up residence in Bath, all while continuing to seek circumstances to benefit their own interests. It seems as though Anne’s primary function is to accede to the whims of the rest, including her married sister Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce), whose combination of hypochondria and narcissism renders her almost incapable of dealing with her own children.

But when a newly-wealthy Wentworth returns, Anne is forced to confront the ramifications of that years-ago breakup. As you might expect, Wentworth harbors some fairly intense feelings of his own regarding the end of that relationship, leading to some awkward interactions – interactions made unavoidable by the fact that Wentworth is a guest at Anne’s sister’s home at the same time that she herself is.

Still more complications arise when distant cousin Mr. Elliot (Henry Golding) turns up; his stated goal is to keep Sir Walter from marrying the opportunistic Mrs. Clay (Lydia Rose Bewley). He’s also got some ideas of his own regarding Anne, and when he turns on the charm, she finds herself wondering whether the time has come for her to truly move on.

All of this rendered through Anne’s perspective, one that is crafted largely via a fourth wall-breaking conceit reminiscent of something like “Fleabag,” and taking place in a Regency-era England that is borrowing heavily from the anachronistic vibes of something like “Bridgerton.”

The biggest issue with “Persuasion” is the fact that it never quite picks a lane. Had it leaned fully into the soapiness, that could have worked. And if it had fully embraced the source material and played it straight, that too could have worked. Instead, the filmmakers seek to walk a tightrope stretched between the two, and while I dug the balancing act, there’s no disputing that they fall off the wire more than once.

Unfortunately, it all remains rather uneven. The modernization of the dialogue is fun, albeit clunky at times. There are some jokes that work, though others definitely land with a thud. We get straightforward period aesthetics lumped in with ‘90s rom-com attitudes and tropes, resulting in more of a disconnect. The direct address method used to express Anne’s interiority doesn’t always click, though I must admit that I enjoyed the effort.

As for the performances? Dakota Johnson is doing her best here; I found her to be rather charming, even when what she was doing wasn’t quite working. She’s good here, though she just misses being even better. Jarvis is an anthropomorphized smolder, all piercing gaze and not much else. Anne’s family and the like are OK – Grant and McKenna-Bruce are the standouts, such as they are. Henry Golding comes in hot, displaying some capital-C Charisma and stealing every scene he’s in with nothing but an easy smile and charm for days.

Again, I’m in the minority here. Loads of people did not like this movie for reasons that I absolutely understand. I get it – this is far from the best adaptation of Jane Austen we’ve gotten over the years. Hell, it’s not even the best adaptation of “Persuasion,” as far as that goes. But even in its failures, one can see the glimmer of something that could have come together far better than it ultimately did. And with sincere apologies to the Austenheads out there, I enjoyed it well enough.

Though I don’t expect I’ll be able to persuade you.

[2.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Thursday, 04 August 2022 12:21

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