Dakota Johnson brings a modern spark to ‘Persuasion’
The new adaptation of “Persuasion” in Netflix does not seem to have been made for Jane Austen fans.
Her book about the unmarried Anne Elliot, who at 27 is on the edge of spinsterhood and regretting having been persuaded to give up her true love years earlier because of his lowly status, was the author’s last before her death. It is notable and beloved for how it’s distinct from her more widely known and adapted books like “Pride and Prejudice” and “Emma,” with its mature heroine, its more reserved wit and its distinctly melancholy undertones. “Persuasion” also boasts one of her most romantic monologues.
This version, directed by British theater veteran Carrie Cracknell and starring Dakota Johnson as Anne, inserts modern phrases and “Fleabag” tropes into a Regency-era setting. It is like an Austen amuse bouche -an entry-level cover version that tries to rev up the humor and speak directly to Gen Z by using its lingo -or at least an advertising executive’s idea of what Gen Z sounds like. But something feels off about the way it is executed.
Austen’s works are hardly impenetrable for modern audiences. Over 200 years later, they remain accessible and relevant. There’s a reason why it seems like every year there’s several Austen-inspired films or shows populating our screens (just this summer we’ve gotten “Fire Island” and “Mr. Malcolm’s List”). Her stories have not only stood the test of time but have also bloomed in delightful ways in modern contexts. Just look at “Clueless” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary.”
This “Persuasion” has a whiff of condescension to it, as though it doesn’t trust its audience to empathize with Anne without seeing her crying in a bathtub and chugging wine from the bottle while she tells us in voiceover that she’s “thriving.” Maybe the crying in the bathtub/wine bit has just been done too many times. You can’t help but feel that Johnson, a gifted comedienne, deserved something more creative and less cliche.
And yet Johnson does manage to sell much of it. She is subtle where many might choose something big and breaks the fourth wall like she’s letting us in on a secret. It may be “Fleabag”-esque, but she’s not imitating Phoebe Waller-Bridge. She’s making it her own.
In fact, most of the cast is rather vibrant and full of newish discoveries, especially Cosmo Jarvis (who some will recognize from “Lady Macbeth”) as Anne’s old love Frederick Wentworth. She rejected him at 19 at the advice of a mentor (the lovely Nikki Amuka-Bird) and has come back into her life eight years later with wealth and good standing. He is now, as far as society is concerned, a man of consequence. Jarvis, with his mournful eyes, warm smile and inscrutable intentions, is a perfect Austen leading man. And he and Johnson, even when across the room from one another, have a spark.
The pint-sized Mia McKenna-Bruce is viciously funny as Anne’s younger sister Mary while Nia Towle is the picture of innocence as Louisa. Richard E. Grant, as Anne’s vain father Walter Elliot, adds life as well but he’s sparingly used. Henry Golding also has fun playing a cad, Mr. Elliot.
The screenplay is credited to Ron Bass (“Rain Man,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding”) and Alice Victoria Winslow, who had the good sense to preserve that famous monologue at the very least. But by the time we get there, it almost makes one wish that this were just a more straightforward adaptation without all the buzzwords. This cast and the director could have carried it and the audience would have been there. Or perhaps this will bring some fresh blood to Austen, after all.
To quote “Persuasion,” “I’m half agony, half hope.”