Director: Carrie Cracknell
Writer: Ron Bass, Alice Victoria Winslow
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Richard E. Grant, Cosmo Jarvis, Henry Golding
The scene: seven people — four young women, one dowager, and two gentlemen — are seated in an opulently-decorated drawing room. On the tables are exotic fruits arranged in pyramids as well as pretty confectioneries. On the walls are gilt-edged frames, ornate vases and at least one marble statue of a Graeco-Roman figure. The teacups are golden and the silence is awkward. One of the young women, after slurping some tea, breaks the aforementioned silence by saying, "Sometimes I have this dream that a giant octopus is sucking my face, and as I struggle to get free, I realise that my hands are tentacles and I can't push it off. And then I realise, of course, that I am the octopus and I am sucking my own face."
One of the gentlemen attempts a philosophical reading to this dream — "those we perceive as our greatest adversaries are just shadow versions of ourselves" — before flirtatiously urging the woman who dreams of octopuses to "wrap those wily tendrils right around" the next octopus she sees "and let yourself be taken". The young woman laughs and replies, "In your dreams, Mr. Elliot."
In case anyone was wondering, even though this scene is in the newest adaptation of Persuasion, there are no references to either octopuses or Hokusai's The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife in Jane Austen's novel of the same name. Neither does the heroine of the film bear even a passing resemblance to the Anne Elliot of the novel. In director Carrie Cracknell's version of Persuasion, Anne (Dakota Johnson) is less the quiet, melancholy and insightful protagonist of Austen's novel, and more a 30-something who likes cosplaying Jane Austen and has watched Bridget Jones's Diary and Fleabag too many times.
While the liberties taken in Persuasion would (understandably) make devotees of Austen froth at the mouth, one could argue that Cracknell and writers Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow are well within their rights to put a new spin to Austen's last novel (Persuasion was published posthumously). After all, there have been fantastic adaptations of Austen's work, from the recent Emma (also streaming on Netflix), which is faithful to the original story but whose mood board and aesthetic is straight out of Instagram; to Fire Island (streaming on Disney+ Hotstar), which gave Pride and Prejudice a modern, queer update. So why not an Anne Elliot who dreams of octopuses, compulsively glugs red wine and breaks the fourth wall every other second?
Because it turns a literary creation who stood out as original into a bland replica of trendiness.
The tragedy of Persuasion is that it will enrage Austen purists and bore everyone else. In terms of plot, it's more or less faithful to the novel. Eight years after Anne Elliot was made to break her engagement with Frederick Wentworth, their paths cross again and their circumstances are now changed. He is no longer a man without prospects or fortune, but a Navy Captain. She is on the verge of being seen as a spinster and her family's finances have taken a hit, thanks to her profligate father. She still loves him, but it seems Wentworth is no longer interested in her. Also, there are new challenges, like Anne's friend Louisa who falls for Wentworth. No doubt you're at the edge of your seat wondering whether or not Anne and Wentworth will persuade one another to give their relationship another chance.
Cracknell's film isn't entirely without virtues. The production design is pretty and the locations are prettier. Richard E. Grant as an ageing narcissistic himbo is delightful. Johnson is often charming once you accept there is nothing "haggard" about this Anne and neither has "her bloom vanished early" (those are from Austen's descriptions of Persuasion's heroine). It's not Johnson's fault that the narrative device of connecting the actor and the audience with a direct straight-to-camera look is overused to the point of becoming banal. In Fleabag, it worked because Phoebe Waller-Bridge used it sparingly. Each time she broke that fourth wall, it felt unsettling, as though the protagonist's fragile façade of equilibrium was in danger of being ruptured. Had Persuasion truly Fleabag-ged Anne's character and made the audience her imaginary friend, created to deal with her heartbreak and depression, it might have worked. But Cracknell imagines Anne as the human equivalent of a bouncy castle. Her mood dips now and then, but in no time, her smile is back and her spirits are up again.
The narrative style is familiar. There's neither subtlety nor suspense and you can see the happy ending coming from a mile away
Perhaps the weakest link in this adaptation of Persuasion is the complete lack of chemistry between Johnson and Cosmo Jarvis, who plays Wentworth. In fact, the two times that we feel any kind of sizzle is in the scenes Jarvis has with Henry Golding. If only Cracknell had had the good sense of directing fan fiction based on Persuasion (maybe featuring a queer romance between Wentworth and Mr. Elliott? You may insert waggling eyebrows here) instead of this uninspiring adaptation.
Austen wrote just six major novels, which continue to feel relevant and relatable to readers more than three centuries since the novelist's passing. One of the reasons for her enduring popularity is the way she wrote women characters and their lives. In Austen's time, the heroines she created were flouting convention and raising hackles. They were not pleasant or admirable, but she demanded they be respected and her decision to give them happy endings remains one the most elegant and creative middle-finger salutes to society that we've had the privilege to see. Austen made her readers fall in love with disruptors to the point that what she held up as heroic flaws — demanding the right to choose for oneself, for example — are now considered virtues for women protagonists. The way she wrote women has formed the bedrock of the modern romantic comedy genre, which is one of the most influential and potentially-subversive genres in both literature and entertainment. In a patriarchal world and misogynist culture, rom-coms prioritise women and their desires. How's that for a revolutionary act?
One of the reasons Persuasion feels listless as a film is because its edginess is superficial. The heroine is a mish-mash of other popular characters, lacking any original traits. The narrative style is familiar. There's neither subtlety nor suspense and you can see the happy ending coming from a mile away. It's worth keeping in mind that when Austen wrote Persuasion, there was no such assurance for the reader. In fact, for a heroine like Anne, who is too old and too plain for the 19th century marriage market, a tragic ending would have been more expected. Austen's choices as a novelist were bold in a way that we don't really appreciate today because stories like the ones she wrote have changed what is considered normal in the world of fiction. What the modern Persuasion lacks more than anything else is Austen's spirit of defiance.