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Persuasion review: a messy adaptation of a timeless story

Persuasion often goes too far in its attempts to modernize a story that, frankly, has yet to lose its timeless appeal. The new film from director Carrie Cracknell is a feature-length adaptation of Jane Austen’s last completed novel, but it diverges from the language and style of its source material. While it maintains its period setting, Persuasion goes out of its way to rework the storytelling of Austen’s novel for 21st-century audiences. Its efforts to do so result in characters often throwing out lines like “He’s a 10. I never trust a 10,” or “Now we’re worse than exes. We’re friends.”

These lines, which awkwardly strain to recapture the tone of modern dating language, clunkily stick out like a sore thumb in Persuasion. At their best, they reek of misguided desperation. At their worst, they feel like failed attempts to cleverly update a novel written by one of history’s most seminal and observant voices. Beyond its frequent uses of modern slang, Persuasion also employs a Fleabag-esque fourth-wall-breaking narrative structure that feels tailor-made to appeal to all the viewers out there who will go into it looking for snarky new eye-rolling gifs to use on Twitter.

While the film’s self-aware style isn’t inherently flawed, its reliance on the kind of winking, overly sarcastic tone that direct-to-camera monologues can provide often distracts from Persuasion’s story. The same can, unfortunately, be said for most of the film’s modernistic touches. It is, however, a testament to the strength of Persuasion’s cast and story that the film still ends up emerging as a pleasant period drama — one that is anchored by yet another charismatic performance from its lead star.

A tale of lost love

The Elliot and Musgrove sisters look through a window together in Netflix's Persuasion.
Nick Wall/Netflix

Persuasion follows Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson), the daughter of an exceedingly vain and in-debt English lord (played by a pitch-perfect Richard E. Grant), who is stuck mourning the loss of a romance that she gave up several years earlier. Despite her various attempts to assure those watching at home that she is “thriving,” it’s clear that Anne’s heartache and yearning for her former suitor, an accomplished Navy captain named Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), has overwhelmed her. When Persuasion begins, she has made a habit out of picking the scabs of her own, self-imposed romantic wounds.

Anne’s life is given a shot of energy, however, when she finds herself sharing the same space again with Frederick. Her initial attempts to keep a distance between her and him predictably do more damage than good, and the film follows the pair of former lovers as they struggle to navigate the lingering feelings they still have for each other. In case that wasn’t complicated enough, Anne’s feelings for Frederick are tested when one of her sisters-in-law, Louisa (Nia Towle), begins courting the esteemed Navy captain. Frederick, meanwhile, is tested in a similar way when Anne catches the eye of her handsome but mercenary distant cousin, William Elliot (Henry Golding).

Lady Russell and Anne Elliot stand outside together in Netflix's Persuasion.
Nick Wall/Netflix

All of this plays out less as a comedy of manners and more as a messy exploration of love and yearning. Johnson, in particular, helps to center Persuasion even in its most misguided of moments. Despite the winking nature of her performance, Johnson manages to effectively communicate Anne’s heartbreak and, in doing so, she creates a compelling portrait of how love can be overtaken by regret and yearning when it is denied for too long. Even when the film itself tries to recapture the wit and snark of certain notable Austen adaptations — namely, 2020’s Emma. — Johnson successfully prevents her take on Anne from becoming a failed copy of the author’s other protagonists.

A lovelorn narrator

Anne Elliot stands near a window and drapes in Netflix's Persuasion.
Nick Wall/Netflix

When Persuasion also leans into the feelings of desire and sorrow that are plaguing Johnson’s Anne, it often shines. A lengthy conversation that Anne and Frederick share after they cross paths on the beach, for instance, ranks as one of the film’s best scenes, and both Johnson and Jarvis’ performances throughout it are simultaneously raw and withholding in a way that feels intensely, painfully honest. Even the frequent, performative stiffness of Jarvis’ Frederick helps the film convey the emotional devastation that both he and Anne are still recovering from years after she was “persuaded” to break off their relationship.

It’s in the film’s many exterior sequences that Cracknell’s direction shines brightest as well. Working in tandem with her cinematographer, Joe Anderson, Cracknell is able to use Persuasion‘s English countryside locations to not only fill it with several stunning images but also further accentuate the achingly melancholic emotions of its heartbroken protagonist. John Paul Kelly’s production design, meanwhile, adds colorful vibrancy to many of the film’s locations, including Anne’s family home, which helps prevent Persuasion from feeling overly conventional during certain sections of its story.

However, while Cracknell’s extensive theatre background helps her stage Persuasion’s various interior sequences in often interesting ways, she also relies far too heavily on the film’s fourth-wall-breaking style. There are numerous moments throughout Persuasion when Cracknell cuts to Johnson’s face so that she can give the camera an unnecessary wink or smirk, which occasionally makes the film feel less like a cinematic love story and more like an overlong, one-woman monologue.

As resonant as ever

Mr. Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth face each other in Netflix's Persuasion.
Nick Wall/Netflix

The film’s unrelenting focus on Anne’s personal commentary often distracts from the efforts of its various supporting players. Fortunately, several of the film’s cast members still manage to make a memorable impression, including the previously mentioned Grant, who chews up and spits out every deliciously self-involved line he’s given. Mia McKenna-Bruce also turns in a delightfully bratty performance as Anne’s narcissistic sister, Mary, while Henry Golding is given a chance to portray the kind of scene-stealing, smarmy cad that Hollywood rarely lets him play. His scenes with Johnson are among Persuasion’s most playful and electric.

For the most part, though, all of Persuasion’s cast members manage to do their jobs well, which just makes the film’s desire to try and “modernize” Austen’s original novel that much more frustrating. The moments when it is actually, earnestly delving into its source material’s feelings of love and yearning are when the film is often at its best. In fact, by trying to rework Persuasion for the modern world, the film has ironically proven, once again, just how timeless and enduring Austen’s original novel still is.

Persuasion begins streaming Friday, July 15 on Netflix.

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