Yet another Jane Austen big screen adaptation arrives with “Persuasion”, a recent Netflix drama based on the 1817 Austen novel of the same name. The film is directed by Carrie Cracknell and stars Dakota Johnson who seems to be everywhere these days. Add to it a compelling supporting cast that features Henry Golding, Cosmo Jarvis, Nikki Amuka-Bird, and Richard Grant among others. Those are a lot of good pieces. It’s too bad they can’t bring life to this mostly tepid affair.
Johnson does her best playing Anne Elliot, the middle daughter in a family of vain and incredibly shallow aristocrats. For eight years Anne has remained heartbroken over losing her true love, Frederick Wentworth (Jarvis). Anne was crazy about him, but was persuaded to turn down his proposal by her disapproving family who saw him as “a sailor without rank or fortune”. So Anne spends her time quietly moping while secretly keeping up with Frederick’s Naval exploits.
Anne is a baffling character. Co-screenwriters Alice Victoria Winslow and Ron Bass turn their protagonist into an impossible to read contradiction. In one sense she’s smarter and more grounded than anyone else we meet. She often clashes with her family’s unbridled vainglory, frequently breaking the fourth wall to point out their conceit or to give us a “can you believe that?” look. At times she seems incisive and self-assured – the kind of clear-eyed woman who sees through the societal nonsense of the era.
Yet all of that is undone by countless instances where she’s rendered weak and subservient. The sly and spirited Anne we see when she looks into the camera clashes with the one who doesn’t stand up for herself and lets her obnoxious family treat her like dirt. It’s even worse once Frederick inevitably comes back into the picture. It becomes one of those annoying movie situations where the central tension hinges on two people’s refusal to have one simple conversation. In this case, it’s Anne and Frederick’s unwillingness to express their feelings for each other.
So the film’s ice-cold romance basically waits in the wings as Anne and Frederick mope around in various states of unhappiness. Henry Golding is supposed to add some complexity to the relationship, but he’s essentially little more than eye-candy. He plays Anne’s dashing distant relative who has one eye on his inheritance and one eye on his cousin. He brings very little to the story.
The same can be said for pretty much all of the supporting cast. Easily the most annoying of the bunch is Anne’s spoiled drama-queen sister, Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce). She’s a one-note irritation who wears out her welcome. As with most of the film, it’s not due to the performance. It’s just a case of McKenna-Bruce being handed a poorly written character who you quickly grow tired of seeing.
The one character who’s actually fun is Anne’s haughty father, Sir Walter Eliot, a man infatuated with status and his “exquisite jawline”. Richard Grant’s deliciously over-the-top performance brings several good laughs. Unfortunately, after some early scenes he pretty much vanishes until the final act.
I’m not a seasoned Jane Austen reader so it’s hard for me to compare her novel with the film. But from what I’ve read, this isn’t the most faithful Austen adaptation. Either way, “Persuasion” isn’t a very good movie. It’s flat and lacks the spark that it needs to make us care. As it is, nothing about the supposed romance keeps our interest, and the characters just putter along as we wait for something interesting to happen. Sadly, it never really does. “Persuasion” is streaming now on Netflix.