If anything, director Carrie Cracknell’s “Persuasion” achieves an intriguing pop-culture-compassionate moment. Austen influenced Bridget Jones’s Diary, and now Bridget herself seems to have influenced Dakota Johnson’s thoroughly charming portrayal of Anne Elliot. She drinks plenty of red wine straight from the bottle, cries in the tub and lies around in bed, recounting her romantic woes with a familiar, unassuming joke. She also repeatedly breaks the fourth wall “Fleabag” style with an amusingly dry side or a well-timed eye roll. Anne jokes that she’s “blossoming,” and obviously she’s anything but, but she’s so winning in her state of loss that we can’t help but root for her. Johnson doesn’t get funny often – go back and watch Fifty Shades of Gray if you dare to get a taste of her underappreciated comic timing – so it’s a pleasure to see her show off this side of talent shows again here.
Johnson and some of the supporting cast manage to hold the film together when lack of commitment and emotional weight threaten to tear it apart. Still, it’s impossible to care if Anne ends up with Frederick Wentworth because, as played by Cosmo Jarvis, he’s so stiff and uncharismatic. There’s not a single moment in their interactions that makes us understand why a woman so practical and perceptive has pined for him for the past eight years. Austen’s last novel is called Persuasion because it is about how the snobs around Anne persuaded them to reject Wentworth when he was of no rank or fortune. Now he’s back and he’s a captain, but he remains a terrible bore. There’s said to be a distance and an awkwardness as Anne and Wentworth reconnect, but there’s also no friction or tension, so we think her friends and family probably had the right idea a long time ago.
Anne has remained single all these years, but her family is in turmoil as the film begins. Due to the impulsive spending habits of vain Sir Walter Elliot (Richard E. Grant, perfectly cast as the cute patriarch) on the brink of financial ruin, the family has to downsize to more suitable shelters for the time being. When they move out of their estate, Admiral Croft and his wife move in – and she happens to be Wentworth’s sister. His return from the Napoleonic Wars prompts Anne to reflect on their romance, including the ‘playlist’ he made for her, which is cleverly a stack of sheet music. Johnson’s British accent is mediocre; she doesn’t overdo it and becomes a posh parody, but she’s also a bit inconsistent here. Yet there is a new kind of soulfulness in her eyes that is irresistible, and of course she glows even in her fear and sorrow.