In 19th century England, an unmarried woman whose aristocratic family are falling on (relatively) hard times reconnects with an old flame.
Much has been made of the shallow updating in this newest adaptation of Persuasion. When renting out their ancestral home, the cash-strapped Elliots worry that leaving behind the household ledgers leaves them open to identity theft; meanwhile narcissistic, lazy daughter Mary claims to be “an empath”, and draws a sad face on a pleading note.
To be fair, not all the modernising grates. I did laugh at Anne Elliott’s memento of her doomed teenage relationship with naval officer Frederick Wentworth: the 19th century version of a young lovers’ mix tape called Love Tracks, comprising several pages of sheet music. I hope he illustrated the front page with meaningful doodles, even if his military background would prevent him decorating it with the Regency equivalent of the CND symbol.
Anne (Dakota Johnson) is eight years on from her failed engagement to Wentworth, broken off on the advice of family friend Lady Russell on account of his lowly prospects. Her vain and extravagant father Sir Walter Elliott (Richard E Grant), a man who has “never met a reflective surface he didn’t like”, has burned through the family wealth, and is now forced to let the family seat Kellynch, relocating to a house in Bath with his two unmarried daughters: Anne, and the lofty Elizabeth (Yolanda Kettle).
The ever-whinging Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce), the married third sister, has two young boys who exhaust and annoy her in equal measure. Summoned to help Mary out, Anne is reacquainted with Wentworth, whose stock has certainly risen: not only is he now a successful, wealthy sea captain, he has also literally saved a whale. Wentworth, though, begins to slip into a friendship with Mary’s sister-in-law Louisa Musgrove (Nia Towle); and while on a group trip to Lyme Regis, Anne finds herself targeted by the heir to her father’s baronetcy, her handsome and strategic cousin William Elliott. Between those two men, there’s not been so much hotness on the Jurassic Coast since that asteroid wiped out its famous dinosaurs.
I haven’t watched Fleabag, the 21st century TV show deemed to be the biggest (after Austen, one hopes) influence on this film. Anne repeatedly talks to the camera and generally fails at life (either the one expected of her or the one she wants to forge for herself).Though something about this production — not least its ironic, self-congratulatory air — seemed, to me, very 1990s. Initially at least Anne comes across as a Regency Bridget Jones, with her jam moustache and habit of drinking wine from the bottle, and even has a house rabbit, the single lady’s pet of choice 25 years ago.
There are some witty flashes and a handful of entertaining performances (a thoughtful Cosmo Jarvis as Anne’s lost love Captain Wentworth, Nikki Amuka-Bird as the occasionally misguided but loyal Lady Russell, and Henry Golding as the blatantly shallow Elliot heir, William), but this adaptation is an uneven disappointment.
The flatness of the production contrasts with much — presumably compensatory — overegging. Often it reminded me of one of those slightly desperate Shakespeare productions with too few actors trying to attract the attention of a sleepy audience, so everyone has to be emotion+1 all the time (one scene in particular is terrible for this; I half-expected a hey nonny nonny). Attempts at exquisite English embarrassment look silly, and the physical pratfalls are embarrassing.
I wasn’t so bothered that Movie Anne is sharp and clever where Novel Anne was sad and gentle, mainly because I can’t remember much of the book. I haven’t picked up Persuasion since my teens, though I expect it still sits on my shelf, gathering dust. (One cannot throw out an Austen without being haunted for ever more by bonneted middle-aged female ghosts who won’t stop nagging, and I get enough of that from my late mother.) Which is a roundabout way of saying I don’t know which lines are new and which are original to the book; though you can make an educated guess, or even an uneducated one, as we hear Elizabeth described as “fashion forward”, or Lady Russell’s rather on the nose comment that “marriage is transactional for women”.
Johnson’s timing is perfect for this Persuasion, though the talking to camera is annoying and intimate in equal measure. At best her Anne is an imperfect heroine we can root for, and see ourselves reflected in; though she is also too pleased with herself.
There is little spark between Anne and Wentworth. They are certainly well-matched, as both hold themselves on the outskirts of their social groups, observing (Wentworth in particular is a rumbling volcano of emotions held in check by courteous manners and stiff-backed Naval bearing; Cosmo Jarvis is undoubtedly the best thing about this film).
By contrast Johnson sparkles up against Henry Golding. I loved their brief cake shop sparring, and Anne’s ongoing fascination with her cousin: she is both repulsed and intrigued by him, more so once she knows what he’s up to. Her other best scenes are with Nikki Amuka-Bird as Lady Russell — two women who get each other and can finally be honest.
I can’t review an Austen, even a mangled one, without examining the costumes, which are always part of the story. Mary swoons in white, her impractical outfits yet another way to avoid any actual mothering; Sir Walter resembles a flashy jacquard chaise longue; Anne’s clothes are entirely suitable for nearly a decade spent as drab family dogsbody. In a plain chartreuse gown, she practically blends in with her leaf-patterned chair at a dinner. As her life in Bath becomes more interesting, the same clothes suddenly seem more glamorous: a much-worn long grey skirt gains a jaunty matching beret and suddenly she’s someone who stands out rather than blends in. Anne’s trip to her father’s new house on the Crescent in Bath sees her in a dark green coat, her footman in brown carrying her green and brown carpet bag, approaching the front door of the greying facade of the curved street, dotted with green trees. It’s a palette of natural, subdued colour with the authentic Anne at its centre, while through the front door is her father’s white and gilt world of artifice, vanity and snobbery.
A few scenes stand out. Hiding behind a tree to pee on a family walk, Anne first has to listen to Wentworth’s brutal dispatch of her own character, then to Louisa’s “ickle me” attempts at flirting, coquettishly requesting Frederick teach her how to read a sextant. Anne’s expression at Louisa’s cringeworthy behaviour is perfect, and her dance round the large tree trunk so they don’t see her as they leave is farcical but believable, unlike many of the rest of the movie’s contrivances.
Persuasion was released in UK cinemas earlier this month and is now available on Netflix.
Watch the Persuasion trailer now or scroll down for character posters: