Dakota Johnson stars in the Netflix adaptation of Jane Austen's "Persuasion".

Jane Austen as Charcuterie Board — “Persuasion”

“Persuasion” has trouble knowing what type of film it wants to become. The Jane Austen adaptation heaps on the wackiness early, to the point where you’re left wondering if they’re just making “Emma” out of it. This would be a disservice to its lead character Anne being so different from Austen’s other popular protagonists.

Anne Elliot laments at having given up her chance at love seven years earlier, when she was persuaded by friends and family not to marry sailor Frederick Wentworth because of his poverty. Now a naval captain who’s built some wealth, a series of circumstances thrusts Wentworth back into Anne’s life. This is painful for both, as etiquette, social mores of the time, and good old-fashioned anxiety prevent them from communicating how they both obviously still feel about each other. Will they or won’t they? Are they even a good match anymore? Who’s this tall, charming, yet slightly sinister second love interest who enters in the second act?

If you’re unfamiliar with Jane Austen and this all feels a bit derivative, recognize that she created significant foundation on which modern romantic comedies are built. It’s familiar because we still copy her work to this day. Because of their very similar framework and structure, going back and trying to apply modern romantic comedy elements to Austen’s work can often turn out pretty successful. Too many voices as to how that should happen, however, and it can lose focus.

In this newest “Persuasion”, Dakota Johnson’s Anne often breaks the fourth wall to deliver a glance or witty comment to the camera. The approach hews very close to “Fleabag”, but without that series’ snap and acid. “Persuasion” still wants to stay inside a classic approach to the regency genre, which means adhering to more traditional filmmaking – very stately, lots of right angles, a mind toward theatrical blocking and the medium shots that highlight it. It avoids the self-aware slam cuts, natural shooting angles, and rack focus close-ups that cinematic series comedy has embraced.

This more traditional approach makes “Persuasion” lean toward the aching and expressive in so many other ways, but without finding a way to make the more modern direct address to the audience fit. Don’t get me wrong, the British have been folding in asides since before Shakespeare, but there are traditional approaches that fit these in selectively, and then there’s the more modern approach where these asides are built directly and rhythmically into avalanches of dialogue. “Persuasion” tackles the latter with the sensibility of the former.

Johnson’s good enough that you can get away with it anyway, but this isn’t the only place where “Persuasion” is slamming elements together with crossed purposes. Take the novel’s original lines:

“There could have been no two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenances so beloved. Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was a perpetual estrangement”.

This gets turned into the anachronistic line, “Now we’re strangers. No, worse than strangers. We’re exes”. A later echo of this devolves to, “Now we’re worse than exes, we’re friends”.

Reductiveness can be utilized in interesting ways. You can absolutely go somewhere with that – just look at one of the best adaptations of Austen’s “Emma”, the 1995 Beverly Hills-set “Clueless”. It understood how and when to reduce the original material to drive a point home in other ways.

The problem with “Persuasion” is that it sets this reductive approach next to a gloomy moment of a depressed Anne walking into the sea to float and gaze at the gray sky. The intent of screenplay and direction are so wildly out of whack in this moment.

One way of illustrating this unclear focus is how aggravating the music can get. The score is very good, that’s not the problem. It’s constantly used to telegraph whether the next scene is going to be a serious Merchant Ivory yearnathon or Emma-meets-Fleabag kookiness. The scene itself should tell us that, and it does maybe half the time. The rest of the time, it’s fighting crossed intentions so much that we need the music to instruct us that a threatening moment is supposed to be in good fun, or that an oversimplified line isn’t actually supposed to be fun but pained.

Here’s what frustrates the most: I kind of like “Persuasion” anyway. This is one of the best examples in recent memory of a cast nearly saving a film. Dakota Johnson nails it. Utterly. Completely. This Anne isn’t the Anne of the book, which I can live with, but what this screenplay and film ask of her – she absolutely delivers and there are times where she’s brilliant. One of the screenplay’s mistakes is that it’s generally uninterested in Anne’s rich internal life…but Johnson’s interested enough in it for the both of them. She delivers that sense of a whole person whether the film wants to pay attention to that or not. She gives larger performances than what’s being asked of her in that moment.

One of the toughest things an actor can do is to overcome filmmaking and writing that inherently disagree and don’t give her enough to work with. Johnson is battling filmmaking that’s restrictively anguished going one way, and a screenplay that’s reductively irreverent going the other. She feels unconfined by either, and that’s an accomplishment. Hers is a star turn utterly worth watching in a movie that’s maybe-OK-I-guess.

The cast around Johnson is good. Afolabi Alli, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Ben Bailey Smith, and Henry Golding all charm in their own ways. In particular, Mia McKenna-Bruce is the film’s much needed second comedic engine as Anne’s sister Mary – here a clever commentary on live-laugh-love narcissism who plays the part so well she grows on you anyway.

That said, you still need tension to drive a film like this. I can’t help but think of Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 version of “Emma”, my favorite adaptation of Austen. It had real tension throughout, and it found a way to join extremely modern filmmaking sensibilities to a more traditional storytelling approach. The inevitable scenes of who-dances-with-who or who-sits-with-who had a sense of visual irony and emotional language that guided its audience through the film’s adherence to traditional regency storytelling and etiquette-as-setpiece.

De Wilde understood in “Emma” that modern shot choice and editing could be fused with visuals that drew from regency-focused painters such as Edmund Blair Leighton. When those two things fuse instead of fight, you can get tension out of how someone raises a teacup or pauses an extra half-second before they speak.

“Persuasion” almost completely lacks that tension. When Anne and Wentworth awkwardly converse, there’s very little apprehension as to what will happen or how they’re speaking. Instead of watching two people expertly navigate a complicated course through the anxiety of their own expectations, we just see two people hemming and hawing – and that doesn’t feel like Austen. Half of what sparks in an Austen film adaptation is watching that expert navigation crash anyway because of etiquette, social roles, misunderstanding, interruption, and bad timing. That’s what drives playful frustration in the viewer and that tease is what fuels the will-they-or-won’t-they central plot.

Instead, the scenes are about watching Johnson muscle her way through to get the point across anyway, and selling the emotions on her performance despite the script. That makes me interested in watching Anne and her growth, but I couldn’t care less about the core evolution of the romantic plot. In fact, I think this Wentworth is serviceable, but either of his navy captain friends would make a far more rewarding pairing.

All in all, “Persuasion” is somehow both a cheesy and overly dour adaptation, but one with a game cast. Its filmmaking and script are often wildly at odds with each other, but when they both get out of the way enough, that cast does great work with great source material. There’s also some superb design and visuals, even if they do sometimes feel disconnected from what we’re watching happen within them.

I like “Persuasion” despite its questionable qualities as an adaptation and its star-crossed priorities. Johnson and the cast earn the watch on their own, and the film as a whole serves as a good illustration of the breadth Austen’s work can take on. It can be straightforward regency adaptation, or an ironic de Wilde riff, or a comedy of errors, or dour meditation on quiet longing. In “Persuasion”, it can be all these things smashed messily together at once, and yet something human and essential about it still remains.

Saying “Persuasion” is watchable because the Austen-ness of it survives the film’s intentions might seem like damning with faint praise, but Austen survives in much the same way Shakespeare, “One Thousand and One Nights”, Zhang Ailing, or Mary Shelley do. You can have experiments in adapting these that only half-work, but are still very much worth watching because of what they do differently. You can test ideas on them with mixed success, but where performances shine through in a way that’s special or unique to this telling.

That may ask you to be interested in that work or that genre without holding too strict an adherence to it – to be interested in the experimentation with it more than the result of that experiment. That interest doesn’t just vary person to person, but for each person it varies author to author. If that appeals to you about Austen, there’s some unique work happening in “Persuasion”. I was happy with my watch even if I think the film is just all right.

Similarly, if you don’t know Austen well and you want to see a period romantic comedy-drama, you’re getting something nice and watchable, with a charcuterie board’s approach to the genre – you get a little bit of everything, not too much of anything in particular.

If your floor of expectations for Austen is high and you want a certain level of adherence, you won’t be happy with “Persuasion”. Reading around, it does seem like a lot of Austen fans are pretty happy with it as a hatewatch, so if that’s your approach get some snacks and maybe do a Zoom watch party for it.

You can watch “Persuasion” on Netflix.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

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