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Photo: ‘Persuasion’ 

A Mixed Bag of Fine Actors and Bad Ideas

I would say we’re going through a Jane Austen renaissance, but that implies Austen ever went out of fashion, indeed, despite being dead for more than two centuries now, Austen’s works remain as talked-about and beloved as they’ve ever been. In the film world alone we’ve gotten two major Austen adaptations in the past two years, with ‘Emma.’ and ‘Fire Island’ taking radically different approaches to adapting Austen (Emma and Pride and Prejudice, respectively), and both coming out strong for it. Out of Austen’s oeuvre, though, three of her six novels get perhaps too many adaptations while the other three go relatively unacknowledged: Persuasion, the final novel Austen wrote before her death, is one of these.

At first glance it wouldn’t seem too hard to handle Persuasion in the same way you would with, say, Emma, or any of Austen’s more upbeat novels; the problem is that Persuasion is striking in how melancholy it is, less love-starved and more love-haunted, diving deeper into character psychology than any of Austen’s previous novels. Clearly, a more delicate touch than the norm is needed to do the source material justice.

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Unfortunately, ‘Persuasion’, the newfangled adaptation of Austen’s final novel, is a romantic comedy that is light on both romance and comedy. Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) was persuaded by family and friends some eight years ago not to marry Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), a man who at the time was without rank or fortune. After years of separation, the two meet again by chance, as Anne’s father (Richard E. Grant) is going through financial troubles and threatens to bring the whole house down with his vanity. Meanwhile, there’s William Elliot (Henry Golding), a dashing dandy who tries to woo Anne — and is also distantly related to her. It isn’t a 19th-century English romance without kissing cousins.

In fairness to those who had persuaded Anne not to marry Wentworth, he’s not what we would call a snack; mostly it comes down to Cosmo Jarvis being unable to breathe life into the lines he’s given, trying to capture a certain masculine stoicism but more coming off as a candy bar that’s been left in the sun too long. Anne and Wentworth are supposed to be madly in love, denying each other the release of a confession for the whole runtime, and yet there are no sparks; the problem with any romance is that the pair must have chemistry, a discernible reason for wanting to be together, and something crucial is missing (both on paper and in practice) here.

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Then there’s Dakota Johnson. Poor Dakota Johnson. Can you believe it’s been seven years since ‘Fifty shades of Grey’ entered our lives? Yet despite that disaster, Johnson has been able to make a name for herself as one of the finer young actresses in Hollywood right now, experiencing a metamorphosis similar to what Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart went through once they were freed from the shackles of ‘Twilight.’ I can’t say I’m a fan of Johnson’s performance here, not so much because of her English accent (a fine attempt), but because the screenwriters seem convinced that Jane Austen’s most self-reflective heroine would say everything out loud, even when she’s by herself, even when it makes no sense for her to be saying instead of thinking these things. With a single exception (that I can recall, I could be wrong about this), every character speaks aloud what should be an internal monologue; apparently, there was something taboo about voice-over narration during the filmmaking process.

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How Does One “Modernize” Jane Austen?

Much like its cast, which is split down the middle between superb and mismatched (Grant and Golding are excellent, indeed rather conspicuous in how much life they bring to the movie), the film’s aesthetic is split between wanting to adapt the novel in a straight-laced manner and wanting to take some creative risks. You may recall that one of the most popular Austen film adaptations is ‘Clueless’, a modern (well, 1990s) take on Emma which totally transplants the early 19th-century action to high school in the ‘90s, with the titular heroine (really an anti-heroine, Emma is a rather nasty piece of work) becoming alpha bitch Cher without skipping a beat. Conversely, the 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility sticks much closer to the text of the source material, rather than merely channel its spirit, not only retaining the time period of the novel but trying tirelessly to capture Austen’s diction; her characters, after all, talk in a way that’s distinctive, like the only member of its species.

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An Austen character talks specifically like an Austen character much like how a Shakespeare character talks specifically like a Shakespeare character, and like Shakespeare, there is no real way to “modernize” Austen: her concerns are our concerns, so there is no need to bridge the gap between this classic artist and our modern sensibilities. You could set an Austen novel on the moon, or in modern day, but the spirit of the text is perennial.

The setting of ‘Persuasion’ is the same as it originally was: England, during those years when Napoleon was turning Europe upside down. The liberties taken with the source material, however, are pretty much always for the worse — not the least of these being the simplifying of Austen’s dialogue. Whereas the conversations and inner monologues of Persuasion could almost read like poetry at times, the film’s dialogue has been streamlined to the point of often becoming sterile, with Anne’s own reflections taking this the hardest. It doesn’t help also, though, that what was previously reflections are now moments of Anne rolling her eyes directly at the camera and making snide remarks that make her sound more like a spoiled housewife than a young woman haunted by having turned down the love of her life.

The “modernizing” of the dialogue only goes so far as making it easy to understand at face value, so that viewers don’t have to think too hard about what characters are saying, at the immense expense of depth; it makes the dialogue “snappier” without actually providing substance. The only instances of the modernized dialogue working to the movie’s benefit would be the snarky exchanges between Anne and Mr. Elliot, the only two characters to stand out as intellectual equals, if far from right for each other romantically. Indeed, Henry Golding as Mr. Elliot seems to be the most comfortable out of the cast with conveying Austen’s wit, not to mention playing one of Austen’s famous bad boys with gusto.

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‘Persuasion’ Is Not Very Persuasive

I’m sure we’ll get a good adaptation of Persuasion at some point, but it hasn’t happened yet. Whereas some of Jane Austen’s other novels have been translated to the big screen well, there’s something about her final novel that makes it elusive. I suspect the problem with adapting Persuasion has less to do with the book itself and more with people’s perceptions of Austen, with Austen’s work being pigeonholed as happy-go-lucky romantic comedies by her detractors and (inadvertently) her own fans. Since Austen has been a part of the pop culture zeitgeist for longer than any of us have been alive, we go into the whole thing with preconceptions about what reading Austen will be like; it pains me to say that I didn’t start reading Austen at all until about a year ago.

What makes Austen’s appeal everlasting is her lightning-fast but humane wit, her obvious love for her characters, and her genuine belief in the possibility of finding love — all of these qualities are either missing or neutered in the latest film adaptation. Some adaptations fail because they try valiantly to fit a round peg in a square hole, but ‘Persuasion’ does not work simply because it doesn’t try to grasp what makes the source material great, instead applying for the position of second-rate romance drama.

‘Persuasion’ is currently available to stream on Netflix.

CAST: Dakota Johnson, Cosmo Jarvis, Henry Golding, Richard E. Grant, Ben Bailey Smith

CREW: Director: Carrie Cracknell, Writers: Ron Bass, Alice Victoria Winslow, Producers: Andrew Lazar, Christina Weiss Lurie, Music: Stuart Earl

By Brian Collins

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