With the recent spate of Jane Austen films, the ghosts of the Brontë sisters must be asking themselves, “What does she have that we don’t?!”
Austen’s novels have provided the material for decades of adaptation, and the hits just keep coming this year. Following the skewed take on Pride and Prejudice in Fire Island, Netflix presents the second film adaptation of Austen’s 1817 novel Persuasion. Released after her death, Persuasion tells the story of Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson), a young woman who is “persuaded” to dump the man she loves because her mentor thinks he’s too broke to deserve her. Chaos ensues when this former flame, Captain Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), returns from sea duty seven years later and meets Anne. Romantic torches are re-lit, bridges burned down and a happy ending is almost guaranteed.
Written by Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow, Anne breaks the fourth wall to provide explanations and commentary to the audience. This can be a dangerous tactic as the device can be cumbersome or used as a screenwriter’s crutch. Johnson makes it work by seamlessly integrating the asides, as if inviting the viewer into her confidence as a co-conspirator. Bass and Winslow also give her some weird zingers disguised as character descriptions. For example, regarding her snooty father, Sir Walter Elliot (a very funny Richard E. Grant), Anne says, “Vanity is the beginning and end of his character.”
Anne’s conversations with the audience also make sense because she is often viewed as an outsider or an afterthought by her siblings and father. She is the middle child and is constantly tasked with dealing with her very spoiled and obnoxious younger sister, Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce). Mary is a royal sorrow, married to a sweet, understanding husband, played by Ben Bailey Smith. They have two cute little children who Anne adores and director Carrie Cracknell includes several scenes of the three frolicking in the woods. Mary’s wards are also handy tools to create suspense or offer comic relief. (When Anne asks, “Where are your children?” Mary replies, “How should I know?”). At one point, an accident with a broken arm forces Anne to babysit the children, delaying her reunion with Wentworth.
It should be noted that returning naval captain Wentworth is wealthier than before his true love fired him, and that the Elliots have fallen on harder times due to Sir Walter’s penchant for wasting money. Wentworth is also upset with Anne about her firing, adding some tension to the proceedings. The source of Anne’s conviction is her mentor, Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird), who might as well have sung “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On But The Rent” to her charge. “No romance without finance,” says this immortal disco classic, and much attention is paid to how a woman’s security depends on her husband’s wealth. Unfortunately, the film only takes a cursory, superficial look at this societal ailment, as if a deeper dive would heighten the softness of its romantic comedy. Lady Russell does not deserve the absolution she is being granted here.
That’s a slight downside, though, because any good romantic comedy knows that all it needs to be successful are two people the audience wants to see fall in love. Johnson and Jarvis make a great couple. Johnson, in particular, is fifty shades great, sharp and snappy one minute, convincingly abysmal the next. There’s a sparkle in her eyes when she turns to address the viewer and it’s contagious. Jarvis is almost as good, juggling his conflicting feelings and hurt pride while navigating the slightly convoluted emotional minefield the film takes him through.
Persuasion throws up a few roadblocks between Wentworth and Anne, most notably Anne’s cousin Henry Golding’s William Elliot, a pompous male whore who’s after her. However, the ultimate romantic outcome is never in doubt. Cracknell injects a contemporary vibe while drawing on good old-fashioned movie tropes: farewells from train platforms, letters written with flowery emotion that burst on screen like fireworks. The solid cast cement covers the more noticeable cracks in the story. The result is a pleasant change that is worth renting.
Carrie Cracknell directed. Written by Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow. Starring Dakota Johnson, Cosmo Jarvis, Mia McKenna-Bruce, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Ben Bailey Smith and Richard E. Grant. Netflix, 107 minutes. Rated PG (primitive and neat, with not even a 19th-century no-no word).