Carrie Cracknell’s new film about a Regency spinster whiling her days away after suffering a heartbreak during her younger years is called “Persuasion”, but let’s be clear—this is NOT an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, Persuasion. Despite the title and surface similarities like character names and general setting, abandon any thought of “Persuasion” being an adaptation of Persuasion, and you MIGHT enjoy it as an anachronistic period romantic comedy. Dakota Johnson stars as Anne Elliot, middle daughter of a self-important man who has run the family fortune into the ground. As a debutante, Anne was persuaded to refuse an offer of marriage from Frederick Wentworth, a Naval officer of no rank or importance or wealth. Now, eight years later, Anne is a Wine Aunt™️ and Frederick is the dashing Captain Wentworth, bona fide war hero and rich person. In fact, Wentworth’s brother-in-law, an admiral, has rented Anne’s ancestral home, Kellynch, because the Elliots can no longer afford it.
I realize I am describing the plot of Austen’s Persuasion, but this “Persuasion” is not that Persuasion. Johnson brings a sense of resigned quirkiness to Anne, who talks to the camera and has an emotional support bunny. Her family is uniformly awful, from her vainglorious father (Richard E. Grant, having the MOST fun) to her narcissistic younger sister, Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce), to her selfish older sister, Elizabeth (Yolanda Kettle). Her brother-in-law, Charles (Ben Bailey Smith), is alright, and she has two cute nephews, upon whom she dotes in lieu of Mary’s absentee mothering. But Anne’s life is one of boredom, merely passing time and chatting with the audience, revealing that though her heart was broken, she’s kind of doing okay. There’s really nothing stopping THIS Anne Elliot from finding a suitable husband. She’s charming, pretty, good in a crisis. In the novel, it’s clear Anne really has suffered for the loss of Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), but that doesn’t translate in this film. This Anne is too witty and spirited to pass as a broken-hearted mouse.
What does translate is Johnson’s charisma—like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, she has a natural suggestion of mischief that makes talking to the camera interesting and fun. If this was just an anachronistic period rom-com and not passing itself of as Jane Austen’s most mature and melancholic work, “Persuasion” would be quite cute, a breezy good time with a likeable and good-looking cast. Henry Golding is excellent as William Elliot, Anne’s scheming cousin, and there are some funny beats involving Mary and the consistently horrible things she says. But trying to claim this as Persuasion shoots “Persuasion” in the foot, dooming it to the ranks of completely misguided adaptations. Johnson makes a terrible Anne Elliot in the Austenian sense, but she’s a great sassy spinster called “Anne”.
I’m just not sure, given the tone and style of what is done here, why Cracknell & Co.—the film is adapted by Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow—ever wanted to adapt Persuasion. This tongue in cheek treatment is better suited to Emma Woodhouse or Catherine Morland, or even Elizabeth Bennet, it does not serve Anne Elliot any better than having Elinor Dashwood throw saucy winks over her shoulder or make double entendres to Mr. Ferrers would. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of Austen’s work, one so wrongheaded I can only imagine Bracknell et al wanted to do this for another story and, for some reason, could not and got stuck with Persuasion instead. The result is a godawful Jane Austen adaptation, but if you can set that aside—and it is a mighty struggle if you love Austen—and let Dakota Johnson’s charm wash over you, then “Persuasion” is a passable couple of hours.
Persuasion is now streaming on Netflix.