Persuasion is based on the Jane Austen novel of the same name. “Based” rather than adapted seems to be the hinge in this case as screenwriters Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow craft a modern version of Austen’s classic “will they, won’t they” romance, directed by National Theatre Live regular Carrie Cracknell. It’s not as much of a sledgehammer as Pride, Prejudice and Zombies or as on-the-nose as Modern Persuasion, instead going for something more self-aware and revisionist.
Persuasion is led by the well-balanced and soulful Dakota Johnson as the forlorn Anne Elliot, whose 8 years of romantic torment have left her alone and in much need of a hug. Starting with a scene that may recall the hauntingly platonic affair between Lieutenant Sir Hugh Armitage and Demelza, Persuasion has a fresh take on Jane Austen but does have some familiarities and influences. This windswept Poldark cliffside impromptu sweet-nothings picnic sets Persuasion in motion with an artful aesthetic and modern affectations.
While taken from Johnson’s perspective with a Bridget Jones undercurrent, the sprawling ensemble benefits from the presence of Cosmo Jarvis, Henry Golding, Mia McKenna Bruce, Nia Towle, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Richard E. Grant. Jarvis is essentially a rugby-playing Colin Firth, who while not typical has a fascinating face and is full of spirit and warmth. Golding is his charming handsome self, a Hugh Grant counterpoint or Logan to Rory’s Dean if you speak Gilmore. Grant is hilarious, a manic delight, conjuring up the excitable highs of Bill Nighy and Christopher Walken. Bruce channels Helena Bonham Carter, Towle is a gentle breeze and Amuka-Bird is a fairy godmother.
Much like Anne, the period romance drama’s beauty develops gradually as the slow immersion takes place with feint echoes from the fairy tale, Cinderella. The cinematography catches you off guard, moving from the interiors and the conventional decor of aristocratic living with farcical patter to living paintings and epic natural vistas. While slow to start and somewhat uneven at times, the overall feeling is buoyant and fanciful.
“Come hither… please?”
Johnson’s light make up gives her a natural sense of authenticity and nakedness, there to disarm and downplay some of the subgenre’s trademarks. This unconventional take may disappoint Jane Austen traditionalists in many ways, from its integration of modern English, contemporary music and breaking the fourth wall to its diverse casting. There’s still a curious commentary on gender politics with some key takeaways, but it’s not uncharacteristic with the film’s weighting similar to the Anya Taylor-Joy adaptation of Emma.
Talking about “being an empath” or a “narcissist”, the screenwriters have swathed the dialogue with enough Jane Austen poetry to keep one foot on the ground but have added a few trendy quips to establish a greater connection or present day relevance. Then, while not as wild as A Knight’s Tale’s rock soundtrack, the music and lyrics are a far cry from a piano or harpsichord instrumental. It’s refreshing to have Anne break the fourth wall, addressing the audience to add some additional whimsy and invite us into her world. Imbuing some of the modern elements inherent in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, the most notable difference is the progressive casting.
Persuasion is no ordinary Jane Austen movie. While ambitious, it mostly manages to connect its big swings with enough good humour to forgive some of the misses. The progressive undercurrent may rock the boat too much for old school Jane Austen fans, but the inclusivity will win over new audiences and establishes more in the way of mainstream accessibility. What Persuasion lacks in poise, sophistication and exclusivity, it more than makes up for with original flavour, spirited performances and entertainment value.
The bottom line: Amusing