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Released five months before the autumn 1995 broadcast of Andrew Davies’s six-part Pride and Prejudice, Roger Michell’s Persuasion, adapted by Nick Dear from Jane Austen’s last completed novel, is unequalled as a social-realist satire of class consciousness in early 19th-century England. But it was Davies’s BBC miniseries – stronger than the movie in its championing of female agency, and more glamorous – that opened the floodgates for the unstaunched flow of Austen adaptations.
Adherence to the spirit and letter of the novels is less in vogue currently than it was at the time of Adrian Shergold’s Persuasion (2007) and Jim O’Hanlon’s Emma (2009) – witness Davies’s barrel-scraping Sanditon (2019–present), an opulent Regency Emmerdale. Similarly exploiting the hunger for dumbed-down Austen, the latest Persuasion rivals Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as the nadir of the school.
American screenwriters Alice Victoria Winslow and Ron Bass and British theatre director Carrie Cracknell have imposed on Austen’s mature tragicomedy a vapid romcom sensibility suffused with witless modern humour, such as the grading (“sixes”, “tens”) of people’s looks and double entendres about the heroine Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) being taught by her sea-captain lover Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) to use a sextant. The blitheness has largely bled Austen’s melancholy tale of its contempt for the vanity and worldliness espoused by the widowed baronet Sir Walter Elliot (Richard E. Grant) and his unmarried eldest daughter Elizabeth (Yolande Kettle), and the coarseness of the lowlier but more prudent landowning Musgrove clan into which his self-centred youngest daughter Mary (Mia McKenna-Bruce) has married.
Eight years previously, Anne was dissuaded by her misguided godmother Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird) from marrying the then-fortuneless Wentworth. Deemed “haggard” at 27 by the novel’s Sir Walter, Anne is unnerved by re-encountering Wentworth, a now wealthy eligible bachelor, since he mistrusts Anne for having heeded Lady Russell’s advice. In keeping with Austen’s regard for affection over passion between the sexes, Wentworth warms to Anne again when she organises Louisa Musgrove’s triage after her accident on The Cobb in Lyme Regis.
Persuasion spurns the opportunity to liken contemporary misogynies to the Georgian marriage market’s judging of women as unbreedable after 30. Anne’s omniscience is not the radar for society and family failings it is in the novel, but a sop to the complacency of millennials. Johnson’s far-from-haggard charmer is unrelated to Amanda Root’s dispirited Anne in the 1995 Persuasion or the self-sacrificing Anne, devoid of self-esteem, played by Sally Hawkins in 2007.
Johnson was evidently instructed to smile repeatedly at the camera in a shameless attempt to replicate Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s conspiratorial pact with the Fleabag audience, a conceit wordlessly pre-empted by Hawkins and by Hannah Taylor Gordon and Frances O’Connor, who played the younger and older Fanny Price respectively, in Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park (1999). Persuasion’s unoriginality extends to its colour-blind casting, which – though commendable – lacks the confidence of that demonstrated by The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019). If a non-white David, why not a non-white Anne or Wentworth?
Viewers unfamiliar with Persuasion might have doubted the outcomes of the 1995 and 2007 movies, given the tension generated by the filmmaking in each case. But in this latest adaptation, such is Anne’s winsomeness, and such the diffidence and devotion of Wentworth, a puppy dog in brute’s clothing, that the issue is not in doubt. So inevitable is the final clinch, and so insistent the feel-good vibe, that it was deemed unnecessary to have Anne or Wentworth evolve, beyond her ordained self-assertion and his rallying to her near the end. The other characters – including Sir Walter’s suavely villainous heir Mr. Elliot (Henry Golding) – are thinly drawn and static.
Anne’s mischievous relationship with the camera aside, the scenes offer only mild conflict, resulting in an enveloping flatness. Though certain shots of Anne – including one that isolates her on the left of the frame against the vast sky – promise to render her psychological state on a visual level, there is no follow-up. If anything, the functional mise en scène is occasionally harmed by awkward blocking, as when Anne chances on Mr. Elliot wolfishly kissing Mrs. Clay, Sir Walter’s companion, on the street.
This Persuasion is unique only in its crudeness. Some Georgian baronets’ daughters taken short in the fields surely relieved themselves in situ, as Anne secretly does; jokey metaphoric references to farting, as made by Musgrove family members, may well have been commonplace. Vulgarity can be bracing, but the self-consciousness of it in Cracknell’s adaptation is neither subversive nor amusing – it’s a National Lampoon-ing too far.
► Persuasion is in UK cinemas now and will be available to stream on Netflix from 15 July.