“He’s a 10,” the leading lady enthuses to an older woman about a young man she fancies in this latest screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s final novel — and if that line doesn’t throw you for at least a small loop, there are other mightily anachronistic ingredients in this new Persuasion that may well strike Austen fans, among others, as more than a tad unpersuasive. Breaking down and eradicating period niceties and replacing them with more modern attitudes and phraseology appears to be the central agenda for prominent British theater director Carrie Cracknell in her feature film debut, and while it’s easy to resist some of the cheap-shot modern dialogue that runs through the adaptation by old pro Ron Bass and writer-actress Alice Victoria Winslow, it also shouldn’t be impossible to admit that, since we already have Roger Michell’s outstanding 1995 film adaptation, a cheeky redo might also be welcome, at least for a short stay.
This Netflix film follows in the recent footsteps of Julia Quinn’s eight massively successful Bridgerton books, which were published between 2000-2006. These became the basis for the streamer’s very popular television series of 2020, which reset the rules of the British period melodrama by casting actors of a variety of hues in customarily white roles. Following suit in the same vein with new Austen projects have been the Regency-set Mr. Malcolm’s Lista very loosely based adaptation of Pride and Prejudicea book that even more freely inspired Hulu’s current gay-slanted attraction Fire Island. This Persuasion similarly suggests that shaking up the genre with ahistorical moves in casting and dialogue, as well as with confidential, breaking-the-fourth-wall remarks, need not necessarily distract from the melodramatic fun and may even bump it up at times. For the moment, anyway, Merchant Ivory-style adaptations of venerable old titles may only be seen, however respectfully, in the rear-view mirror.
“I almost got married once,” Anne Elliott (a spirited and persuasive Dakota Johnson) wistfully admits at the outset, self-deprecatingly adding that, at the “advanced” age of 27, “I’m waiting to fall in love.” In further confidences quickly disclosed, she reveals that Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) and her mother are the only people who ever understood her, but that Wentworth—the “10” in question—“is a ship that has sailed,” literally so, as it turns out, as he has since been in the navy.
Obviously once rather well off, what remains of the Elliott family lives at Kellynch Hall, which is now beyond their means. This is a situation about which the surpassingly vain head of the family, Sir Walter (the ever-welcome Richard E. Grant), seemingly intends to do nothing; “What good is anything if you have to earn it?” he disdainfully complains. This being Austen, seldom does a half-minute go by without some lively banter and repartee, as Anne laments her current position in life with wit and no self-pity. But did you ever imagine that, on a country stroll with company, a Jane Austen character would abruptly announce her suddenly desperate need to relieve herself by the side of the path? Whether this represents progress or not will be left to history to decide.
So, indeed, times have changed in how Olde England is to be depicted in the cinema. But however one might chafe at some of the liberties taken, this adaptation is so fundamentally lively and playful that it would seem churlish to complain too mightily; many great authors have endured far worse at the hands of less talented screenwriters and directors who have taken their tasks very seriously, so perhaps it’s not such a dreadful literary trespass for filmmakers to have a little irreverent fun with Austen rather than to maintain absolute and straight -faced fidelity.
The gist of the drama lies in whether Anne will ever be able to fall in love again or might already have missed her chance (Austen, he may be remembered, never married, but was once briefly engaged—at 27). As fate, or Austen, would have it, Wentworth’s older sister Elizabeth (Yolanda Kettle) is currently ensconced at Kellynch Hall, which means that, for better or worse, the undercurrents of feeling and possibilities of reviving the romance will be undeniable. Then there is Anne’s self-dramatizing younger sister Mary Musgrove (Mia McKenna-Bruce) and Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird), who is the one who convinced Anne not to marry Frederick in the first place. In his sporadic appearances, Jarvis unquestionably cuts an extremely handsome figure, but he doesn’t actually have all that much to do, so it’s impossible to evaluate his screen potential from this venture.
You can practically hear director Cracknell cracking the whip on the actors to keep up the pace, to the extent that there’s scarcely a leisurely moment to be found in this propulsive, if somewhat scattershot and sometimes misguided, entertainment. At the very least, there is the constant welcome presence of Johnson, who gamely soldiers through the inspired and sometimes misguided aspects of this production and keeps it more or less on track. It’s unfaithful fun.