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Film review: Persuasion

29 July 2022

Stephen Brown views a modern take on Persuasion, on Netflix


Anne (Dakota Johnson, right) with her mentor, Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird) in Persuasion

Anne (Dakota Johnson, right) with her mentor, Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird) in Persuasion

A NEW colour-blind film version of Persuasion (PG) owes more to the febrile experiences of Fleabag’s angst-ridden heroine than Jane Austen’s subtle portrayal of damage wreaked by past hurts. Gone, too, is the author’s nuanced phraseology. Former lovers are now “exes”. Solicitous enquiries into another’s welfare are reduced to asking if everything is “OK”. A person’s relative attractiveness, frequently mentioned in Austen’s works, is now judged on a scale of one to ten.

But this is much ado about nothing. The stage director Carrie Cracknell’s cinematic debut is less an adaptation, more like contemporary variations on a theme composed many years earlier.

Nineteen-year-old Anne Elliot was persuaded by her mentor, Lady Russell, to reject the impecunious Frederick Wentworth’s proposal. Eight years on, though still mourning the loss, she has turned her own secret pain into empathy for (often selfish) others. In Dakota Johnson’s hands, however, Anne is a bottle-swigging ladette confiding in us with knowing looks to camera.

Like Austen, the film questions whether the Almighty placed the high and lowly where they are and ordered their estate. Sir Walter, Anne’s father (Richard E. Grant) is a narcissistic aristocrat forced to “downsize” because of “his excessive excesses”. The prospect that Admiral Croft, a self-made man, will rent his stately home disgusts him. “What right has the British Navy to bring persons of obscure birth into undue distinction? Only God has the right to bestow rank. What good is a title if you have to earn it?”

Echoing the parable of the sheep and the goats, Anne fruitlessly counsels her father that true reputation comes from honesty, integrity, compassion, acceptance of responsibility for the welfare of others — endorsing Austen’s own Christian values in the face of an entrepreneurial middle class. Captain Wentworth embodies this ascendancy, returning prosperously to Somerset, ostensibly in search of a wife. In contrast with the book, in this film it is soon apparent that he yearns hopelessly (or so he thinks) for Anne. There is little veiling of feelings in Jarvis Cosmo’s monotonous heart-on-sleeve performance. His face remains transfixed in forlorn resignation throughout. Johnson’s, by contrast, subtly runs the gamut of emotions so that we can discern at any moment what she is going through.

One might lament the near-absence of clergy in this production. No mention of Dr Shirley or Frederick’s brother — both clerics — and only passing reference to Henry Hayter, a curate. Anne’s hilariously snobbish sister Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce) flatly refuses to visit his home. “It’s common knowledge”, she declares, “that households employing fewer than five servants are unsanitary.” For Austen, the clergy are crucial to the well-being of the country. What they are, or are not, provides its Christian moral compass.

This film chiefly relies on Anne, not the Church, to be this, amid the scrutiny of patriarchy and a reassessment of the place of feelings in our social arrangements. All to the good; but in the process the film lacks the exploration into the part that sorrow and pain might play as a necessary stage in Anne’s (and the audience’s) spiritual development. Fleabag was rather better at this.

In cinemas and on Netflix

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