Jane Austen is probably the one 19th century author who has persevered the most in our modern consciousness. It’s easy to see why, as her books remain as delightfully sophisticated, and uniquely contemporary to not just those who paid attention in their English classes. Her worlds often depict stories of class structure, and focus primarily on women’s roles in it. Often her characters must navigate through the social norms of the day in order to survive, and this usually includes them finding a husband by the end. The happy ending is found when the heroine is able to claim a suitor that can be both a worthy provider as well as a true love thus defying society’s laws that marriage should only be about money. Despite having only six finished novels to her name, Austen’s works have been countlessly adapted for each generation of women who find inspiration in her heroines. An argument could probably be made that Pride and Prejudice is the source for the modern romantic comedy.
In the new film Persuasion which is based on Austen’s final book and was published posthumously, director Carrie Cracknell puts a post-modern spin on the material, while still evoking a classical tone in the proceedings. Dakota Johnson stars as Anne Elliot, the middle child in a family of self-absorbed, and pompous twits. When Anne’s father Sir Walter (Richard E. Grant) runs into financial trouble, they lend out their extravagant home of Kellyinch Hall and settle at a more humble abode in Bath. The couple who take up rent in their home also happen to be relations to Anne’s former fiancée, a British Naval Captain named Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis). Years earlier Anne called off their engagement after she was convinced that he was not of good financial standing and was therefore unsuitable to marry into their well-established name. It becomes ironic therefore that Anne’s current situation makes her the more destitute, while Wentworth has since made his worthy fortune.
The situation is further complicated once Anne and Wentworth re-connect and deep seated feelings of longing, and bitterness rise to the surface. As is the case with much of Austen’s works, the love between the two of them is caught within the confines of societal expectations, while casual misunderstandings threaten to keep them apart forever.
To grapple with this version of Persuasion almost feels like grappling with the overall public perception of what a Jane Austen film must be. I found it curious that Cracknell chose this book in particular for an approach that walks a fine line between contemporary feminist commentary, and traditional sweeping romance. In order to navigate through the film, it’s best to give up any preconceived notions of the original source material. This Persuasion works best on its own, as it aspires to lend a unique voice to the character of Anne.
As portrayed by Johnson, this Anne bears little resemblance of Austen’s original heroine who was full of melancholy, and regret towards her lost love. In Austen’s text it is fair to say Anne was reaching the age of spinsterhood, with the best years of her life behind her. Much of the sadness that comes from the original novel, is in the fact that Wentworth represented her last vestige of happiness and love which she gave up for her family name.
By comparison Johnson’s interpretation feels more like someone who can’t get her life together. She is a mess in the sense that she doesn’t know what she wants. She has very little patience with her vein family, and marches to the beat of her own drum. Despite her heartbreak with Wentworth, it doesn’t stop her from being fiercely independent from her contemporaries, or being cleverly resourceful. In short, Anne represents what we have grown accustomed to when we think of the typical Austen heroine.
In Johnson’s hands, we see someone who isn’t tarnished by lost love, but rather a person who can carve their own path through the Austen world with a sense of self-worth and agency. Her attitude never reads defeatist but rather determined and strong. In her fourth wall breaking asides seen often in the film, Anne emits contempt for her society, giving mawkish, and astonished glances of their behaviour. It’s a more in your face approach than the subtle Austen commentary that we are used to. It gives a winking effect even submitting current lingo such as “he’s a 10 I don’t trust a 10” in place of more traditional language. It’s as if Johnson is doing her best “No that’s not true Ellen” looks of defiance to those who behave in a spiteful or ignorant way.
Much of this is entertaining and even intriguing in how we view Austen heroines in the overall zeitgeist. However, the film ultimately wants to have its cake and eat it to, which proves its undoing. Cracknell still wants the sweeping romance, and the sadness to overcome us, yet it is muted with the presence of Johnson’s character. Because Anne is not overcome with her own regrets and never fully submits to her heartache towards Wentworth, the latter parts of the film become muted. By the time Mr. William Eliot (Henry Golding) appears as a rival for Anne’s affections, the novelty has worn off, and the film goes through the motions to deliver a quick, and abrupt happy ending.
For her part, Johnson remains as delightful as ever. She radiates movie star energy, that fits in nicely with her version of Anne. However she isn’t asked to stretch beyond this persona she has made for herself. It would have been interesting to see her tackle the more melodramatic aspects of the character, and perhaps some day she can grow out of this charming yet comfortable image she has carved out for herself.
As Wentworth, Jarvis comes off a little better, fitting into the role of the spurned lover, who remains chivalrous yet tight-lipped of his true feelings. It’s fascinating how he exudes stoic manhood energy, while never seeming redundant or uninteresting. As for the rest of the ensemble, many of them carry themselves in a way fit for a prestigious Austen adaptation and conduct themselves accordingly.
Persuasion is by no means a failure, rather I found it to be an experiment that didn’t have the courage of its convictions to pull it off completely. Your enjoyment of the film will greatly depend on your relationship with Jane Austen and how you approach her work. As is the case with many beloved authors, it is difficult to judge any adaption which strays from the material and main character in such a cavalier way. However others might appreciate that approach. If anything, it does prove that Austen is still relevant within the literary and film community, and if this version doesn’t satisfy your appetite, chances are you won’t have to wait long for the next one.
2.5 Stars out of 4